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Mad cow disease forced Galician wolves to alter their diets

Not only is carrion consumption down, but overall, livestock is playing a diminished role in the wolf's diet.

By Brooks Hays
Mad cow disease forced Galician wolves to alter their diets
Iberian wolves have transitioned from a carrion-rich diet to one based mostly on roe deer and wild ponies. Photo by Arturo de Frias Marques/SINC/CC

SANTIAGO, Spain, Oct. 7 (UPI) -- The Iberian wolf, sometimes called the Galician wolf, is a grey wolf subspecies native to Spain and Portugal. Until 2000, Iberian wolves fed mostly on carrion -- typically, dead pigs and cattle.

Since then, researchers say the diet of the Galician wolf has changed. The reason: Europe's Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease crisis.

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In the wake of mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) scare, regulators forbade farmers and ranchers from abandoning dead and dying animals. Most ecological research on the subject looked at the lack of carrion's effect on Europe's vultures.

But wolves were also forced to adapt.

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According to researchers at the University of Santiago de Compostela, in Spain, Iberian wolves have come rely on roe deer, as well as wild boar and pony populations.

Researchers detailed their new findings in the journal Environmental Management.

"We've observed a decline in carrion consumption among wolves, especially in the areas studied in western Galicia," study co-author Laura Lagos, a researcher at Santiago, told SINC.

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Not only is carrion consumption down, but overall, livestock is playing a diminished role in the wolf's diet.

"An increasing number of roe deer and Galicia's significant wild pony population both softened the blow when cattle carrion disappeared, allowing for a change in the wolf's diet and strengthening its predatory niche," explained co-author Felipe Barcena.

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Though roe deer seem to be the wolves' favorite target. In different areas, and during different seasons, the wolves turn their focus to wild boars and ponies. Conservationists are happy to see the predation of wild boars, whose growing numbers across Europe have cause a number of ecological problems.

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But while livestock attacks are down overall, those benefits have been mainly seen by goat and sheep farmers. Cattle ranchers have seen an increase in wolf attacks.

Researchers are worried this trend could complicate the protection and recovery of the once endangered Iberian wolf. Conservationists are working with ranchers to develop new management practices that might better protect cattle without harming wolf populations. Part of that process means bolstering pony and roe deer numbers, so to provide wolves with ample hunting opportunities.

"Habitat restoration work will also be needed in order to provide the wolves with a diverse and plentiful source of wild prey, which is essential if this canine population is to survive natural and artificial changes to its habitat, and if conflicts with livestock are to be reduced," the researchers wrote in their new paper.

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With a strong habitat restoration effort, ecologists say farmers and ranchers could even be allowed to once again let animal carcasses be.

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