We investigated wolf feeding habits in relation to the abundance of wild and domestic ungulates to test the hypothesis that large prey are preferred and that their abundance affects the use of other food categories and diet breadth. We determined diet composition by scat analysis from December 1987 to December 1992. The research was carried out in three study areas located in northern Italy and characterised by marked differences in wild and domestic ungulate abundance. In study area A (low wild and domestic ungulate availability) fruits, livestock, other vertebrates and wild ungulates made up the bulk of the diet (71% in volume). In area B (high availability of livestock) wolf diet was mainly based on sheep and wild boars (80% in volume). In study area C (high availability of wild ungulates) wild ungulates were the main food of wolves (90% in volume). Significant differences were found among study areas in the mean percentage volume of all food categories and in particular for wild ungulates, livestock, other vertebrates and fruits (p < 0.0001 in all cases). Diet breadth decreased in areas with high availability of large wild and domestic herbivores. The use of livestock species was lower where there was high abundance, richness and diversity of the wild ungulate guild. Selection for wild ungulate species was partially affected by their abundance: however other factors as prey social behaviour, adaptability to the habitat (for introduced species), and body size could have an important role in species selection by wolves. In particular in area C wild boars were selected for, roe and red deers avoided, and fallow deers and mouflons used as available. Livestock species were used in relation to their abundance and accessibility, in particular sheep were selected for and cattle avoided; but if calves bom in the pastures were considered as the only available cattle, they were selected for and sheep were used as available.
Large and in particular wild herbivores were found to be of great importance for the wolf population maintenance in northern Italy, one of the most important recovery areas of Mediterranean wolves.