PARIS -- Wolves are at the gates of Paris.
A dead male wolf, probably shot by hunters, was found Jan. 31 in Coole, a town 160 kilometers (100 miles) east of the French capital. Since May, wolves have attacked flocks of sheep 29 times in a cluster of villages about 180 kilometers southeast of Paris.
"That's just a few days' walk for a wolf," said Maxime Zucca, a researcher at Natureparif, a government-funded body that studies wildlife in Ile-de-France, the region surrounding the capital. "We can't predict if or when they'll arrive in the Paris area, but it's something we have to be prepared for."
While wolves don't pose an immediate danger to the city's residents, they have been spreading out north and west in France since crossing over from Italy in 1992, and everywhere they've led to clashes between farmers who say their flocks are at risk and environmentalists who welcome the return of the mythical predators. Farmers, supported by some members of parliament, want France to pull out of accords banning the hunting of protected raiders such as wolves, lynx and bears.
"Wolves are fine in the Alps, in Siberia, in Yellowstone but they are incompatible with human farming," Nicolas Dhuicq, a lawmaker who has entered a bill allowing wolf hunting, said in an interview as he and farmers in the Aube region, southeast of Paris, met at a local farm to discuss how to raise awareness about the challenges they face from wolves.
Until their return in the 1990s, the last wolves in France were killed in the southwest in the 1920s. They have been extinct in the Paris region since the middle of the 19th century.
France has a wolf population now of between 250 and 300, and their numbers are growing, according to the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minn. That compares with 1,000 in Italy, as many as 2,000 in Spain, and about 50 in Germany.
Wolves killed 6,666 farm animals, mostly sheep, across France in 2012, up from 5,362 in 2011 and 4,691 in 2010, according to the Ministry of the Environment. About half of those attacks were in the southern Alps, where Italian wolves first appeared in France after a hiatus of more than 60 years.
The number of mainland France's 94 departments that have reported sheep killed by wolves rose to 16 in 2012 -- the latest figures available -- from 14 in 2011 and 11 in 2010.
Farmers say the statistics on the attacks underestimate the scale of the problem because wounded sheep often die later and pregnant females frequently miscarry because of the stress.
Jean-Baptiste Scherrer, a 41-year-old farmer with 12 parcels of land spread around the village of Bar-sur-Aube, southeast of Paris, said he got a call at dawn on May 22 from workers at neighboring vineyards who'd seen his sheep acting strangely and what seemed like a dog running away. He found two dead and nine wounded sheep.
Another attack a week later killed five of his sheep, and forest rangers confirmed both were wolf attacks. After that, he kept his 200 ewes indoors for the rest of the summer, feeding them grain and hay instead of letting them graze. On his iPhone, he has photos of a dozen stillborn lambs he said resulted from miscarriages in the following weeks.
By GREGORY VISCUSI