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Wolf protection in Western Europe

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While the wolf has remained in some European ecosystems all the way despite the multiple human threats, like in Italy’s Abruzzi mountains, the wolf’s return has become a central topic amongst European conservationists and ecologists. With the 1995 Yellowstone wolf reintroduction being a classic example of a successful reintroduction, it mustn’t be confounded with the wolf’s natural return, which is the case in France, Switzerland and Italy with the grey wolf for instance.

An astonishing result of the wolf’s return (whether natural or through reintroduction programmes) that the Yellowstone National Park (2022) wolf reintroduction has highlighted is the important effects of trophic cascade. Issues coupled to growing hoofstock populations such as elk, for example intensive grazing which in turn leads to vulnerable meadows and grasslands, can be alleviated by strengthening the predator population. And this is specifically what the reintroduction of wolf has caused: to control the population of primary grazers and restore a balance in the food web. Indeed, in addition to alleviating pressure from plants in a “vertical” way, competitive “horizontal” interactions for food amongst hoofstock means other species, including beavers, could recover to healthy populations thanks to a shear reduction in number of elks.

Image: https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fichier:Trophic_Cascade.svg. Licensed under a Creative Commons license

This shows the ecological importance of wolves and the impacts that its return can have at different levels on the landscape and ecosystems. In central Europe, despite no wolf reintroduction program being active, the wolf is making a natural return thanks to several policies aiming to protect this species, under the Bern Convention signed in 1979. The latter enabled a more adequate environment for wolves in Europe, which, thanks to a high mobility and ease of moving into new areas as a species, started establishing new populations in France

in 1992 already (France 24, 2018). With an estimated population of 360 in France in 2018, new sightings of wolves in most of Central Europe and growing populations in both Switzerland and Germany indicate that the wolf is making a real comeback, at least as far the numbers show.

Deinet et al., 2013: Wildlife Comeback in Europe

While conservationists are happy to see how protecting the wolf leads to great benefits for the landscape and ecosystem, landowners living in areas where the wolf is coming back are often worried for their herds on which they very much depend economically. As a consequence, they have been calling for rules to be relaxed for a few years now and protests have begun to rise to ask for less strict hunting conditions, notably in Lyon, France, where hundreds of sheep were let loose on the streets of the city in 2017 (France 24, 2017). The protected species’ very strict hunting laws in Central Europe mean the actions that farmers can do to protect their herd are very limited, often allowing hunting under very strict conditions – either with a permit or if sufficient wolf damage can be proved. As a response to the farmer’s protests, however, wolf culling has been authorised in France to kill up to 10% of the population.

The latter regulation has been heavily criticised by conservation groups, arguing there’s too little wolves to cause real threat and that culling proved to be counterproductive as well as scientifically unjustified. By disrupting wolves families, culling hurts the hunting capacities of the pack which shifts its attention to easier prey, eventually leading to an increase in livestock predation.

2017: Farmers protested in Lyon, France following a rise in wolf attacks in the region. Photo: VCG.

A coalition of NGOs that includes WWF has pointed out a “lack of political courage” to stand up against the farming lobby. Other conservation groups have called for states to take full responsibility on the matter and ensure  a  good combination of livestock protection measures. In the past, offering compensation subsidies for the losses in livestock was the main measure put in place, however it is not a durable solution and subsiding protection and preventive measures are now increasingly encouraged (Rossberg, 2019).

With the wolf’s protection putting farmers at economical risk due to losses in livestock, the wolf’s return further creates community disbalances and starts to enter the political sphere, as answering all the involved parties’ demands gets harder with growing wolves population. The dialogue between farmers, conservationists and the state is a key component of the issue, as farmers really want their voice to be heard at all means, sometimes turning the problem into a mediation challenge more than anything. In addition, because this issue find its roots in an animal that does not bother with geopolitical boundaries, it is supported that the answer to the wolf issue will be found in a unified European response (Wolf Alliance, 2022).

The latter two aspects show the relevance of partnership, both between the farming lobby, the state and expert scientists as well as between Central Europe’s different conservation programs to jointly monitor the wolves’ populations. In the latter case, a European Alliance for Wolf Conservation (EAWC) was founded in 2015 by multiple European associations – and later joined by many others – to discuss livestock protection, exemplary educational programs and how the EU can take steps towards a multi-stakeholder wolf protection.

With the wolf’s return forcing partnerships of this kind, it directly enhances the links between European countries and nature protection NGOs, meaning other ecological or sustainable development challenges in the future will take benefit of a more adapted and efficient response. However, creating an inclusive bond with farmers and farmers’ syndicates is still hard to establish. Ferus, an animal protection group, has set up a scheme in the optic of relaxing the relationships between farmers and pro-wolf camps (Ferus, 2022). In the latter, volunteers are trained to keep guard over flocks at sheep farms, turning out to be the technique with most efficient impact in avoiding wolf attacks. Despite this, Ferus is badly seen by farmers and the scheme is thus struggling to extend to new farms, showing there is still work to be accomplished to find a sustainable agreement between all parties.

Referencess:

  • Deinet, S., Ieronymidou, C., McRae, L., Burfield, I.J., Foppen, R.P., Collen, B. and Böhm, M. (2013) ‘Wildlife comeback in Europe: The recovery of selected mammal and bird species. Final report to Rewilding Europe’ ZSL, BirdLife International and the European Bird Census Council.
  • Wolf Alliance (2022) ‘Who are we? – Advocating for non-lethal coexistence with wolves in Europe.’ [online]. Available from: https://wolf-alliance.org/about/ [Accessed 7 March 2022].

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