A grey wolf

Wolf in Western Europe: Is There a Place for the Predator

On March 13, 2021, Jean-Marie Bernard, the President of the Department of Haute Alps, France, was found guilty of illegal possession, transportation, and exchange of body part of a protected animal. Mr. Bernard will have to pay 10,000 Euro in fines, 600 Euro to environmentalist groups who acted as plaintiffs, and 500 Euro in court fees. The reason? In February 2020 Mr. Bernard presented a tail of a wolf to the department’s head of the police, Cécile Bigot-Dekeyzer. Allegedly, the animal had been illegally killed by a farmer protecting their livestock, or in retaliation for their damage. Mr. Bernard was aiming to draw attention to the growing conflict between rural communities and the alpha predators, and to support his case for a better wolf management policy. Instead, he found himself, in his own words, “punished for the crime [he] did not commit, because the court yielded to political pressure”.

A grey wolf Once nearly exterminated across Western Europe, the wolf is making a strong comeback. Some animals appear by virtue of natural migration from the East, mostly from Russia through Belarus and Lithuania into Poland, and then to Eastern Germany, where the wolves found convenient refuge on the vast tracts of land formerly used as training grounds by Soviet Block and now turned into natural reserves. Others are released through official reintroduction programs; these animals have names and wear GPS collars. There are also escapees from zoos and animal parks, often as the result of animal rights groups breaking in and “liberating” the animals. Some German hunters suspect that certain environmental groups stage “escapes” as a coverup for illegal release of wolves.

Total number of wolves in Europe is difficult to estimate. There are believed to be around 580 wolves in France (concentrated mostly in the Pyrenees and in the Alpine provinces of the south-east, such as Provence, Savoy, and, you guessed it, Haute-Alps). The German Union of Hunters estimates there are about 1,000 wolves in Germany; the government doesn’t have any official figures. A few wolves are found in Belgium and the Netherlands. Spain and Portugal share a population of about 2,500 wolves of the Iberian subspecies. Population in Poland is estimated at about 2,000 individuals, and the Baltic states, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, have probably as many between themselves.

Generally, the majority of the mostly urban European population is enthusiastic about the wolf. Among the anthropogenic and raffinate European environment, the wolf represents some fresh, primordial, savage wilderness: The Return of True Nature. Footage of a wolf running in broad daylight through a little town in the Netherlands was greeted with cheers across the country. A viral video of a couple of other wolves trying to take a red deer, taken on a phone just a short drive from Rhein-Ruhr, Germany’s most populated urban agglomeration, made hundreds of amateur wildlife photographers flock to the location to try and snap their own shot of the predators. Michael Herbrecht, the local forester, says the influx of people created more problems for the wildlife than the wolves themselves (source).

a wolf on a rock

The rural population, obviously, is not amused. Hundreds of sheep and dozens of cattle annually are killed by wolves, often as they practice their instinctive “surplus killing” in the fall. According to the French associations of cattle and sheep breeders, the wolves cost the national economy over 30 million Euro in 2019 alone (source). The figure is comprised of compensation to the farmers (3,070,000 Euro), cost of additional anti-wolf fences and protection measures (26,840,000 Euro, plus 110,000 Euro in emergency loans), and the salaries of the government officials who are engaged full-time in wolf-related cases (2,000,000 Euro).

Dog lovers don’t really need to applaud the appearance of wolves in their neighborhood, either. In Scandinavia, on the average 20-30 attacks on dogs by wolves are registered a year, the attacks being lethal in 2/3 of cases (source).  Potential danger to humans is also of concern. While nobody has of yet died due to a wolf attack in Europe, two children were attacked and bitten by a non-rabid wolf in Poland in 2018, and reports of people being obviously stalked by wolves as they walk through the countryside are on the increase.

And, of course, there are the wild animals that serve as prey to wolves. The Federation of Hunters in the Department of Haute Savoy, France, released a series of shocking photographs, picturing roe deer, ibex, and other animals killed by wolves. The statement says that while the damage made to domestic animals is well documented, the impact of wolves on wild fauna is not; it concludes that wolf numbers need to be managed, and calls for opening of a limited wolf hunting season.

wolf and an old kill

One wonders why animal rights groups are not aggravated by the deaths of “innocent animals” on the fangs of the wolves, but actually this is their plan. They believe that introduction of wolves would not only lead to healthier ecosystems, but can also reduce the numbers of ungulates. This will make it unnecessary to hunt in order to prevent overpopulation of game animals, and is seen as a road to ban all hunting.

What seems to escape them completely, as usual, is the fact that no legal harvest doesn’t mean no harvest. Where hunting is not allowed, poaching thrives. Every year 3-5 wolves, shot and left where they are, are found in Germany alone. How many are not found, one can only wonder. An illegal killing of a wolf carries a fine of up to 50,000 Euro, but those who pull the trigger know it’s nearly impossible to identify and prosecute them. This was the point that Mr. Bernard was trying to make.

Overall, the wolf is a protected species in the European Union, but individual countries may be granted an exemption if they can prove the harvest is necessary to control the population. Finland achieved a landmark victory in the European Court of Justice in October 2019, with the verdict supporting their right to hold a wolf season to protect the reindeer herders of the Lapland and Suomi provinces. This opened the road for some German federal states, most notably Lower Saxony, to allow hunting for problem wolves.

In Spain, until recently, wolf harvest was controlled on the provincial level, with some regions banning the hunt, others allowing it on various conditions. However, in March 2021 Spain listed wolf as a protected animal, which is to end the hunt; the votes of the pro-hunt delegates of the provinces that hold 95% of the country’s wolves population were overridden by representatives of the provinces where the predators are hardly ever recorded (source).

wolves

Lithuania is another European country that allows wolf hunting, with the quota of up to 135 animals a year. Contrary to stereotypical perception of Eastern Europe, there are no vast stretches of wilderness in Lithuania. In fact, there is no such point on the country’s map where you’d be more than two kilometers away from the nearest human settlement. Contacts and conflicts between wolves and farmers are unavoidable, and Lithuanian universities put in a lot of effort to study wolves and their impact on the country’s nature and agriculture.

Petras Adeikis, who is both ScD in Biology and a professional hunter engaged in problem animal control, writes (source) that most wolves in Lithuania are “forest” animals that feed on other wildlife and avoid any interaction with humans. If scat analysis is to be trusted, the red and roe deer and the moose make up the lion’s share of the wolf’s ration. Wild pigs, beavers and racoon dogs are consumed less frequently. However, in spite of the combined press of human hunting and wolf predation, the number of ungulates in Lithuania continues to grow. Dr. Aidekis also makes a claim, although without giving any specific data supporting it, that natural selection by wolves improve the quality of red deer hunting trophies.

The impact on beaver and the racoon dog, by contrast, is more noticeable – and beneficial. Racoon dogs are an invasive species in Lithuania, and do a lot of damage to ground-nesting birds, such as black and hazel grouse and capercaillie, as well as other small game. But where the wolves occur, the numbers of the racoon dog go down immediately, and their prey species make an impressive comeback. As for beavers, they have become a real menace for Baltic states, with floods caused by their dams damaging both farming land and roads. In fact, this damage is so costly that after the appearance of wolves combined wildlife-related losses to the economy actually decrease, in spite of the fact that wolves do kill livestock.

Two hunters and a wolf over a pole

According to Dr. Adeikis, it is impossible to completely prevent wolves from killing sheep and cattle, simply because the wolf is a highly plastic species and different individuals will try experimenting with alternative food sources. However, these incidents can be minimized by adequate fencing and properly managed wolf hunting. Cattle killing is not an instinctive behavior, it is a learned one. Conventional sports hunting does little to reduce wolf-human conflict, because hunters tend to target the “forest” wolves that feed on wildlife and avoid humans, while the potential problem animals stick near human habitat, survive, and reproduce.

By contrast, purposeful removal of problem animals has a great effect. Dr. Adeikis tells how in one area of Lithuania a pack of wolves killed nine cows. He went after the pack and killed one wolf, an adult male, that likely migrated from elsewhere and was teaching his cubs how to feed on cattle. After this, attacks on cattle in the area stopped. Obviously, the cubs and their mother returned to normal, instinctive feeding practices.

The moral of the story is predictable. Humankind influences ecosystems in many ways: by building roads and houses, agriculture and animal husbandry, extraction of minerals, creation of energy, etc. Unless we all get in a rocket and hop over to Mars, we can’t just withdraw; populations will need to be managed. Wolf is no exception. One shouldn’t worry about its survival; even in the countries, where, like in Russia, anything goes for wolf hunting from night vision scopes to riding them down on snowmobiles, wolf populations keep growing. It is a magnificent, awesome animal that can make our ecosystems richer and healthier, but its numbers need to be controlled just the same.

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