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Wolves under threat in Europe

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By Gil Pires

· 6 min read

Sweden launches new wolf hunt against European Law and the EU is preparing to support it.

In May of 2022, the Swedish Government announced that it would be culling half of the country’s wolf population as part of its annual wolf hunt in defiance of European Law. Its decision has emboldened the farming lobby to push for a downgrading of wolf protections in the European Union (EU).

After being extinct in Scandinavia for roughly a hundred years, three wolves from the Russo-Finnish population migrated to the region in the eighties — reestablishing a local population there. Today, the Swedish Environmental Agency estimates that there are a total of 540 wolves living in the region — 460 in Sweden and 80 in Norway.

However, the successful recovery of wolves has not been gleefully embraced by rural communities in both countries. Farmers complain that wolves attack their livestock and hunters argue that they take down their game, while both say that they have killed shepherd and hunting dogs too. Furthermore, the compensations provided by the Swedish Government for animal losses and to subsidize electrical fences are not enough to cover all of their costs according to farmers.

For these reasons both Governments lifted their bans on wolf hunting and have emitted licenses for the culling of a limited number of wolves every year, typically between January and February. Most recently, Sweden announced in May of last year that it intended to cull half of its wolf population — alarming conservation groups.

The wolf hunts, including the most recent culling, are widely contested by conservation organizations, who claim that they are driven by a strong hunting lobby. They also point to the data gathered by the European Parliament which shows that large carnivores (including wolves) are responsible for the annual loss of 0.05% of the total sheep stock in mainland Europe.

Wolves do kill on average 374 sheep per year in Sweden and 2211 in Norway, and measures should be taken to minimize these losses. But it is worth noting that Norway has a larger number of deaths despite having fewer wolves. This happens because their sheep graze freely and unprotected while Swedish herds are kept behind fences, often electrified — a testament to the efficacy of preventive measures.

Most recently, an international consortium of eighteen scientists also argued, in a letter published in Science, that the Scandinavian wolf population observes high levels of inbreeding and maintains a very limited gene pool. This means that reducing the number of wolves may put the population at risk. They further add that a genetically viable population in Sweden would ideally have over 500 specimens.

The case of Norway

The legality of these wolf hunting licenses is also debatable. In 2017, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) sued the Norwegian Government at the Oslo District Court over illegal wolf management practices which violated the National Nature Diversity Act, the International Bern Convention, as well as the National Constitution. However, the court ruled in favor of the Government.

A second case was launched in 2021 at the same court by the animal rights organization Noah. This time the Government was sued for authorizing the killing of two wolf families inside of the designated Wolf Zone — which comprises 5% of Norway’s territory and where the animals were supposed to be protected.

This time the court concluded that the Government’s position was indeed in breach of the National Nature Diversity Act and it issued an interim injunction on January of 2022 forbidding any hunting inside the Wolf Zone, until the appeal was settled. This effectively led to a temporary halt of the hunting season, however the decision was reversed by the Norwegian Court of Appeal on Friday, February 11th.

Nine wolves were killed inside the protected area that same weekend.

Gravdalen, Jotunheimen, Norway. Photo by Matej Drha on Unsplash

The case of Sweden

Sweden’s wolf hunting licenses have also been contested. In 2015, the country received its second formal warning by the European Commission over its wolf management practices. The warning claimed that “Sweden has established a systemic practice which infringes the (EU) Habitats Directive.”

The Commission highlighted three reasons why Sweden is failing to meet its obligations: 1) it is not considering other satisfactory alternatives, 2) it is not ensuring that licensed hunts are strictly supervised and 3) it is not demonstrating that hunting would not threaten the growth of the local wolf population. Nevertheless, the Commission has never referred the country to the Court of Justice of the EU.

As it stands, these hunting practices are unlikely to change any time soon. Especially now that, for the first time in thirty-five years, Sweden does not have a dedicated Environment Ministry. A decision taken by its new right-wing Government elected in 2022.

The position of the Nordic states has emboldened the farming lobby, which has a strong influence within the European Parliament, to push for a downgrading of wolf protections in the EU.

On November 24th of last year, the Parliament approved a joint resolution which urges the European Commission to carry assessments of the data on population sizes, in order to update the conservation status of large carnivores as soon as the desired status has been reached. It also emphasizes the impact these animals have on farmers and calls on the commission to identify more funding opportunities for preventive measures.

At face value, the resolution makes several reasonable claims — especially regarding the funding of preventive measures. However, its focus on the menace of large carnivores and its intention to influence their conservation status reveals that it fundamentally seeks to undermine the animal’s legal protections. That is why it was contested in a public letter co-signed by seven environmental organizations acting in Europe.

Pressure is also coming from the President of European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, who — after her own pony was killed by a wolf in Germany in September of 2022 — has “ordered Commission officials to reevaluate the rules strictly protecting wolves in Europe” — according to Politico. Even though, an order for the culling of that wolf has already been emitted by the German Government, since it is an animal that repeatedly targeted livestock — an exception which is already predicted in the current laws.

It is now obvious that there is a campaign to downgrade wolf protections in the European Union. One that is gaining momentum and threatening Europe’s wolves. Similar campaigns are taking place in the United States too, where the Yellowstone National Park witnessed last year its deadliest wolf hunt in one hundred years, after the State of Montana elected an anti-wolf Republican Governor in 2021.

Meanwhile, the Swedish wolf hunting season of 2023 went ahead during the month January and will last until February 15th. Following the backlash, authorities have greatly reduced the number of animals allowed to be culled to a total of 75 wolves (16%). Euronews reports that, as of February 6th, 54 wolves have been killed.

This article is also published on the author's blog. Future Thought Leaders is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of rising Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

Cover photo by Nihongraphy N from Pexels
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About the author

Gil Pires is a Lisbon-based Consultant with a MSc on Biotechnology from the Instituto Superior Técnico of Lisbon, who writes explainer articles on the subject of science to contextualize the constant stream of news we are flooded with on a daily basis.

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