The Shepherd's Lament

On a chilly late-summer morning, Pascal Wick sits perfectly still atop a rock outcropping in the French Alps. In the dawn light, he is nearly indistinguishable from the boulders, scree and sage tufts on this angular hillside. His flock of 1,300 sheep graze quietly on the slopes below. Suddenly, a loud barking breaks the silence. Wick's guard dog--a white, 100-pound Pyrenean Patou called Chrome--is running toward a thicket of trees. Wick scans the slope with binoculars, then lowers them slowly. "It could have been a wolf," he says.

Last July Wick discovered a wolf finishing off a freshly killed lamb in broad daylight. In a nearby valley, local residents recently sighted a lone wolf on the prowl. Young wolves from farther down the valley, out to establish their own packs, have started "prospecting" in the area, says Wick, looking to expand their range. Wick the shepherd sees that as a good sign. "I want to show that we can live together."

Environmentalists agree, and according to polls, so do most French citizens. But a powerful faction of sheep farmers are fiercely opposed. "Our ancestors chased the wolf out of here 70 years ago," says Jean Bonnaffe, a 60-year-old sheep farmer. "We should do as they did and get rid of them." The farmers are hemmed in by recent trends in tourism, environmentalism and economics. Each year 35,000 hectares of farmland revert to forest, which suits tourists who like to camp and hike, but not the sheep, who need open grasslands. Lamb and mutton imported from New Zealand is cheaper and, many say, tastier. More than $3.3 billion in European subsidies have been set aside to help the farmers in the Alps over the next three years, but still 2,500 lose their livelihoods each year. And now here come wolves, who may have killed a thousand sheep in France last year. "It's the whole changing of the system that the shepherds are against," says Jacques Trouvilliez, a forest-service official. "The farmers are afraid of being shut out of the new mountain economy."

Wolves vanished from France in the 1930s after the French government's century-long effort to exterminate them. They retreated to Italy, where the legends of Romulus and Remus, Rome's founders who were raised by proverbial wolves, won them some sympathy. When the wolf population dwindled to a mere 100 in the 1970s, the Italian government declared the animal a protected species.

By then, the French had also turned eco-minded. In 1972 the French government put restrictions on hunting, which allowed the populations of roe, red deer, chamois and wild boar--the wolf's natural prey--to explode. Opportunistically, the wolves migrated northward. In 1992 forest rangers in Mercantour National Park above Nice spotted two healthy gray wolves coming down from Italy's Appenine mountains into France. Now about 30 wolves in half a dozen packs are dispersed from the southern Alps above Nice up to the Swiss peaks.

Opposition from shepherds and locals has been well organized. An antiwolf Web site claimed the predators had been reintroduced artificially and so should be deprived of their protected status. Shepherds have vowed to shoot any wolves they see. "The prowolf people don't understand a thing," says Bonnaffe. "They're not here year after year doing the work we do." Since 1996, Bonnaffe has lost 20 sheep out of a flock of 400 to wolf attacks. Coco Bonardet, a sheep owner from Monetiers les Bains, discovered a dead sheep in his garage on the morning of the town's annual livestock fair last month. "I don't sleep at night anymore," he says. "We're at the mercy of this beast." Bonardet even considered hanging the slain sheep in the public square. "Unfortunately, there's only one thing to do," Gerard Fromm, a local veterinarian intoned to the gathered crowd to grim nods of agreement. "That's to eliminate the wolf altogether."

Scientists and environmentalists argue that the wolf's role is essential in keeping the deer and other animal populations in check. And besides, they say, the sheep farmers have simply grown lazy. "The shepherds just left their cabins and their flocks to rot," says Florence Englebert of France Nature Environment. Fully half the flocks in France and Switzerland now roam the mountains alone without even guard dogs to protect them. Each year domestic dogs kill 25,000 sheep. "The only reason half these people raise sheep is to get their hands on European subsidies," says Englebert.

In the middle of this spat is Pascal Wick, 59, the only shepherd in France who holds a Ph.D. in applied economics from Penn State University. Wick says he prefers herding sheep when there are wolves about--it's more natural that way. "If I had the choice between two places which were identical except that one had big predators and not the other, I would choose the one with big predators," he says, sitting in front of his mountain hut. With environmentalist and shepherding credentials, Wick has friends on both sides of the wolf war. But he has no doubts who's going to win. "The wolves are here to stay," he says, "and there's nothing anyone can do about it now."