Every year, officers from France’s Office for Biodiversity (OFB) organise a day of tracking the European grey wolf in Aubrac, in the country’s Massif Central.
The species was once widespread across the French countryside. By the 19th century, it only occupied half of its historical territory. Humans reduced their habitat and hunted the European grey wolf almost to extinction. Then it disappeared entirely in 1937.
But now the number of wolves is growing again in France with its population on the verge of exceeding 1,000 individuals.
How do you track a wolf?
The success of the European grey wolf is particularly strong in the southwestern Occitania region, where the conditions are just right for these animals.
“The wolf can arrive in any part of the country overnight. It is capable of adapting everywhere,” explains Julien Steinmetz, monitoring coordinator at OFB Occitanie, as he walks through the Aubrac plateau’s snow-covered forest.
He is joined by Jean-Christophe Peers who is in charge of monitoring for the OFB in this rural region.
“This is a paradise for the wolf. There’s a lot of game that might interest it,” Peers adds.
They are looking for new tracks from a wolf they believe has been in the area for several years. Pawprints left on wintery mornings can be used to locate excrement, urine or hair which allows them to genetically identify the individual.
Eleven other teams - a total of around 40 people - are scouring this part of the Aubrac at the same time. Made up of volunteers and members of organisations monitoring the species, they have spotted the European grey wolf several times since 2014.
Peers and Steinmetz can identify the prints of most animals - like deer, hares and forest cats - at a glance. But some make them look twice.
“It's the dogs in particular that can make us doubt,” says Steinmetz.
Were any wolves found in Aubrac?
This year, the OFB trackers didn’t find any wolf prints at all, much to the disappointment of volunteers like 77-year-old Gérard Alric.
“I am an environmentalist at heart and the wolf is a mythical animal. It's a mythical animal that has a lot of people talking, so I'd like us to look at it a little more rationally,” he says.
Camera traps placed by the OFB didn’t catch any photos of these elusive creatures either. After dismantling three of the 15 devices strapped to trees in Aubrac and sorting through hundreds of photos, Peers found no sign of the wolves.
But the absence of footprints and photos doesn’t mean there aren’t any in the region. They can travel across vast areas of at least 200 square kilometres. Of the 1,000 individual wolves in France, 15 have been counted in Occitania.
In 2022, OFB recorded the first births in the region. Cubs were born in two of the nine areas where the species is known to have a permanent presence.
Watch the video above to see France’s biodiversity officers track the wolves.