Background: The implementation of intensive and complex approaches to monitor large carnivores is resource demanding, restricted to endangered species, small populations, or small distribution ranges. Wolf monitoring over large spatial scales is difficult, but the management of such contentious species requires regular estimations of abundance to guide decision-makers. The integration of wolf marking behaviour with simple sign counts may offer a cost-effective alternative to monitor the status of wolf populations over large spatial scales.
Methodology/principal findings: We used a multi-sampling approach, based on the collection of visual and scent wolf marks (faeces and ground scratching) and the assessment of wolf reproduction using howling and observation points, to test whether the intensity of marking behaviour around the pup-rearing period (summer-autumn) could reflect wolf reproduction. Between 1994 and 2007 we collected 1,964 wolf marks in a total of 1,877 km surveyed and we searched for the pups' presence (1,497 howling and 307 observations points) in 42 sampling sites with a regular presence of wolves (120 sampling sites/year). The number of wolf marks was ca. 3 times higher in sites with a confirmed presence of pups (20.3 vs. 7.2 marks). We found a significant relationship between the number of wolf marks (mean and maximum relative abundance index) and the probability of wolf reproduction.
Conclusions/significance: This research establishes a real-time relationship between the intensity of wolf marking behaviour and wolf reproduction. We suggest a conservative cutting point of 0.60 for the probability of wolf reproduction to monitor wolves on a regional scale combined with the use of the mean relative abundance index of wolf marks in a given area. We show how the integration of wolf behaviour with simple sampling procedures permit rapid, real-time, and cost-effective assessments of the breeding status of wolf packs with substantial implications to monitor wolves at large spatial scales.