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In Turkey, wolves and people have shared a landscape for generations

Utah biologists track gray wolves with GPS collars and camera traps as their numbers rebound into populated parts of northeast Turkey.

After 14 years of gathering and analyzing field data, an international research team led by University of Utah biologist Çağan Şekercioğlu has released the first and only study of gray wolf movements and ecology in Turkey.

Using GPS collars and camera traps, researchers tracked seasonal variations of wolves’ range sizes in the highlands of Turkey’s rural northeastern corner, where people are widely present during the summer, but mostly absent in the winter when the area is completely snowbound.

PHOTO CREDIT: Çağan Şekercioğlu

Howling wolves were recorded by a camera trap on eastern Turkey’s Kars-Ardahan plateau for research led by Utah biologist Çağan Şekercioğlu.

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The team was surprised to discover human presence had no effect on wolf movements.

“Even though human activity changes drastically, wolves are not taking advantage of that by increasing their home range size or changing their home range size between the seasons when humans are there and when they’re not there,” said J. David Blount, lead author of the study published this month in the journal Wildlife Biology. “Theoretically they have a lot of different needs during these times that should be fluctuating, especially with the dispersing wolves.”

He cautioned against drawing inferences from the Turkey study that could be applied to gray wolves in the American West, where they are returning after being completely eliminated.

“Wolves are very adjustable, which leads to many exciting behavioral adaptations,” said Blount, a graduate student in Şekercioğlu’s lab. “However, studies are pretty context-dependent.”

Turkey’s gray wolves, which are somewhat smaller than their North American counterparts, were never wiped out like they were in the United States and Europe.

Since the mid-1990s, wolves have been making a comeback following re-introductions in the Yellowstone region, Arizona and, most recently, western Colorado.

The wolf situation in eastern Turkey is completely different, according to Şekercioğlu, a professor of biology. While wolves have been a problem for livestock operations, shepherds and ranchers have learned to live with the apex predator with the help of Anatolian sheepdogs, which protect cattle and sheep without harming the wolves.

Meanwhile, the wolf has long been a Turkish national symbol that once was printed on that country’s currency.

Çağan Şekercioğlu (center)

“For cultural reasons, we never had a campaign to poison all the wolves,” said Şekercioğlu, a native of Turkey and founder of the conservation NGO KuzeyDoğa Society.

According to the study, as wolves resettle areas near towns, understanding how wolves adjust their temporal and spatial patterns in human-dominated landscapes can contribute to their conservation.

“There are a lot of deep valleys that these animals are using. Last year, we had a wolf that dispersed and she found this beautiful little hideout that was overlooking this entire valley that she would just go to and just sit up and just watch,” Blount said. “So each wolf has this really unique personality, and you get to see that by where they are, where they’re going, how they’re moving.”

An ornithologist who studies tropical songbirds, Şekercioğlu began eying wolves when he moved from Stanford University in 2010 and used startup funds provided by the University of Utah to initiate the project, also supported by grants from Fondation Segré, the Sigrid Rausing Trust and the Whitley Fund.

A few years previously, he had observed wolves crossing roads while scouting sites to establish his bird banding station on Turkey’s Kars-Ardahan plateau.

“We continue with the bird work, but in corner of my head I remember those wolves,” said Şekercioğlu, who is supported by the National Geographic Society as one its Explorers since 2004.

He expanded his research program to cover large carnivores, including brown bears and lynx. These species still occupy the plateau, while poaching and logging have displaced deer and various other native prey species.

PHOTO CREDIT: Çağan Şekercioğlu

Wolf pups photographed at their den on eastern Turkey’s Kars-Ardahan plateau.

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Wolves are resourceful, hardy animals whose population in the Kars region has been stable since Şekercioğlu began studying them.

“But things are changing and we have to make sure the forest habitat there is restored and to complete Turkey’s first wildlife corridor I convinced the government to create. The highway overpass needs to be built to reduce road kills of wolves,” he said. “And most importantly, native red deer populations need to be reintroduced so that these wolves have wild prey, which means they’ll have less conflict with humans over livestock.”

The study area covered 550 square kilometers surrounding Sarıkamış, a town of 15,500.  Over 14 research seasons, running from mid-May to mid-August, the research team captured 46 wolves and fitted them with GPS collars, which recorded a location every five hours and are designed to fall off after two years. Led by Prof. Josip Kusak, a zoologist with the University of Zagreb and an adjunct professor at the University of Utah, the capture efforts relied on rubber-padded leg-hold traps that wouldn’t injure the wolves.

The new study analyzes collar data recorded from 31 wolves captured and released between 2011 and 2022. It also used images recorded by motion-triggered trap cameras recorded over a five-year period. These cameras were affixed to tree trunks along dirt roads, high enough to remain above the snow, in a 2-kilometer grid pattern, 142 sites in total.

The cameras yielded 26,000 photos of wildlife and countless others that recorded animals other than wildlife.

The researchers predicted that the data would show the wolves adjusting the timing and space of their movements in response to the seasonal presence of people, who essentially abandoned the plateau in winter.

Contrary to this hypothesis, they detected no difference between the seasons in the size of the collared wolves’ home ranges, despite a three-to four-fold change in human presence.

“We found active wolf dens in the hills overlooking the town,” Şekercioğlu said. “You can see apartment buildings down the hill, not to mention hundreds of villages scattered around this landscape.”

PHOTO CREDIT: Çağan Şekercioğlu

A scavenging wolf recorded by a camera trap on eastern Turkey’s Kars-Ardahan plateau for research led by Utah biologist Çağan Şekercioğlu.

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The wolves appear to spend more time during the winter close to towns, he added, “which is why you don’t see many cats in the streets of the Kars region as you would see in Istanbul.”

The research also analyzed wolf scat to determine what these predators were eating during the summer research season. Remarkably, 41% of their diet consisted of livestock, while the rest were squirrels and other small mammals.

Şekercioğlu suspects that most of the cattle and sheep these wolves eat are scavenged.

“This is another cultural element. In Islam, if livestock dies naturally, you cannot eat it. Back in the day when a cow or sheep died naturally, it was probably diseased,” he said. “So shepherds just leave it in these meadows. It’s perfect for wolves.”

As Turkey continues to urbanize, rural regions like Kars lose their human inhabitants, taking livestock with them.

“This is one part of Turkey where the population is slowly going down about 1% a year,” Şekercioğlu said. “The livestock numbers are half of what they used to be about two decades ago. So on one hand, the drop in human pressure is good, but on the other hand, livestock, both scavenged and hunted, is a big part of the diet of these wolves. Ironically, the drop in livestock numbers in the long term is a threat for these wolves unless the government brings back prey by restoring red deer populations.”

His organization has urged Turkey’s wildlife agencies to do just that.

“And they said, ‘Why will we do that if wolves are going to eat our deer?’” he said. “I’m like, ‘That’s exactly the point!’”