The old hunter leaned on his truffle-digging tool and took a drag on his cigarette. “Duemila lupi,” he said. Two thousand wolves. He scanned our astonished faces and then looked down at the dirt and shook his head, not even trying to conceal his disgust.
We were standing in a young oak forest in Umbria after spending the last couple of hours learning how to find black truffles with dogs. The forest had been planted with oak saplings a couple of decades ago. At the time of the planting, the soil around the new trees had been inoculated with black truffle spores. Although not the most valuable type of truffle in the region, the black truffles growing in this forest provided people like our new friend with a modest income and a chance to be out in the woods with his dogs. All of us in the group were interested in environmental restoration and so after the truffle hunter had filled his pockets with about forty nuggets of the “black gold,” the conversation started to drift towards the area’s wildlife.
Two thousand wolves was probably a bit of an exaggeration for that region. The rough estimate for the wolf population for the whole of Italy was a shade below two thousand. Our truffle-hunting friend was guessing at the wolf population in Umbria alone, a small region of the country located a little north of Rome. Even if his estimate was a little high, nobody was denying that recently there had been a dramatic resurgence of wolves. He showed us a photo on his phone of a wolf trotting casually through an agricultural field just a couple of kilometers from where we stood. Around us lay several spent shells that had been used to shoot cinghiale (wild boar), one of the wolves’ favorite foods. His point was well-taken. There were a heck of a lot of wolves now roaming this landscape. You don’t even want to raise this topic with the local shepherds, he warned.
Italy has about one fifth less land area than my home state of Montana. In that smaller space it manages to squeeze about sixty times Montana’s meager human population of a million people. And yet it has at least as many wolves as Montana does and probably, by this one hunter’s reckoning, quite a few more. The Italian gray wolf or Apennine wolf (Canis lupus italicus) is a slightly smaller subspecies of gray wolf than the ones we have in Montana (Canis lupus irremotus). But it is no less furtive and opportunistic a predator and its renewed presence on Italian landscapes is no less startling for wildlife watchers, farmers, and inhabitants of this long-occupied terrain.
The Montana-Umbria comparison is instructive for anyone considering what sort of world we might choose to inhabit in the years ahead. In Montana, “big sky country,” we have the large remote wildernesses like the Bob Marshall, the Selway-Bitterroot, and Glacier National Park. Each of these protected landscapes push (or exceed) the million acre mark. They are home to many of the big predators and ungulates that have called the Northern Rockies home over the last ten millennia. The level of disturbance they have experienced through history at the hands of indigenous peoples is debated, but the ecosystems they contain for the most part remain vibrant and functional. They are emblematic lands that retain, as the U.S. Wilderness Act demands, indications of a “primeval character and influence.”
Umbria, by contrast, is a much smaller landscape. Although it has spectacular national parks and protected areas – most notably the steep peaks of Monti Sibillini that reach as high as eight thousand feet – it generally has the appearance of a gardened and manipulated landscape. The exquisite blend of the contoured and the cultivated has long sent visiting painters into a frenzy. It tempts tourists to do nothing more strenuous than sit back and sip wine as they look out across vineyards and olive groves on warm summer evenings. People appear to have occupied and shaped the landscapes of Umbria to a much greater degree than they have in many parts of Montana.
And yet, where do the wolves live? The answer is that they will live happily in both of these places. The wolves don’t care. They just want enough food to eat and to be left alone. There is no hard and fast dichotomy between wild landscapes that contain only wolves and cultivated ones that contain only people. The truth is much more nuanced. The truth is actually much more surprising and invigorating than we have imagined. Nature and culture can overlap in remarkable ways.
Throughout the summer of 2017, a hidden camera recorded the activities of several wolves living in the Castel di Guido Reserve near Rome. The tiny protected area is jammed into the space between the center of Rome and the city’s major airport, Fiumicino. It is not the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana and there is certainly not a lot of space in there. There is, however, enough food and enough sanctuary for the wolves to want to call it home.
When we think about the epoch ahead that many are self-indulgently calling “the Anthropocene,” we might remember these wolves and the way they choose to live their lives. “This is the first time in more than 100 years that wolves have been found living near Rome,” said Alessia De Lorenzis, a local ecology professor studying the Castel di Guido pack. “We’re very pleased that they are back.”