The return of the wolf: a Conference in the EU Parliament

From a thorough identification of the challenges rising from the Human-Wolf relationship to a difficult definition of suitable and sustainable solutions.

A conference entitled “the Return of the Wolf to the European Landscape: Challenges and Solutions” was organised by the Intergroup for the biodiversity, hunting and countryside in the European Parliament yesterday.

During the latter, main concerns and issues linked to the wolves populations presence and development within the EU were raised. In particular, and as suggested in the title of the conference, emphasis has been laid on problems encountered by EU regions faced with the return of wolves decades, if not centuries, after their eradication by Human Beings.

At this stage, it is important to insist on the fact that, contrary to a common belief, wolves returned to their former territories most of the time on their own and no volontary reintroduction of the species was involved. Wolves used to be a natural big carnivore in Europe, endemic to some specific regions.

The whole panel seemed to agree on what the core challenges consisted in. First of all, it has been consistently acknowledged that wolves suffer from a low social acceptance, especially compared to other big carnivores in Europe. Several reasons account for this. From an historic perspective, wolves were always depicted as pests. This perception hasn't shifted for an important range of the European citizens. It has even been fed by media's focuses on information, sometimes inaccurate, leading to an emotional response of the population instead of rising its acute awareness (e. g. showing an adolescent pretending, without concrete proof, he was attacked by a wolves pack).

The increase of close-contacts between wolves and humans (e. g. 77 wolves closer than 25 meters from human beings were reported in Germany last year) make the Wolf more visible and is also a source of fear among people, even though the risk of an attack is assessed as very low.

The return of the Wolf also generates troubles with both farmers and hunters, respectively because of livestocks and hunting preys depredation, which, according to them, gives rise to a considerable loss of income for some of these professionals (which are actually most of the time compensated through States subsidies). It is very unfortunate that some hunters do not only fear for their preys but also sometimes encourage the wolf spreading in order to be able to hunt them in a near future, as suggested by a participant.

In the specific case of farmers, the return of the wolves in areas where they had disappeared for a while has posed difficulties since their infrastructures or farming methods are not adapted to wolf's depredation anymore. On the other side, this commonly spread scare and lack of adaptation don't always reach areas which have been continuously Wolf territories. There, Wolves and Humans have always been sharing lands and inhabitants have adapted their lives and infrastructures in order to prevent damages from wolves. Henceforth, the coexistence of wolves and locals is peaceful and the acceptance of the wolves much higher.

In the end, all of these combined factors have resulted in a more systematic culling policy from the public institutions (most of the time through a mean of derogation to the Birds and Habitats Directive) and in an escalation of illegal killing of wolves, leading sometimes to the decrease of a population under the favourable conservation status level (e. g. in Finland).

But there are not only opponents to the Wolf's return, fierce defenders of its cause are also numerous. For instance, in Germany where the Wolf has returned for more than a decade now and its population increasing significantly every year (around 30%), a Nature And Biodiversity Union (hereafter NABU) survey has highlighted that nearly 80% of the overall population welcomed this return, when merely 17% opposed it.

However, a lack of communication, knowledge and understanding resulted in conflicts, sometimes violent,  between pro- and contra-Wolves.

The Challenges being defined, Solutions were equally to be discussed. Consensus was reached on two points. First of all, there need to be more scientifically-evidenced-based decisions alongside with dissemination of these information amongst the population. The public policy-makers decisions as well as the public opinion should not originate from spontaneous emotional reaction mostly drawn by the media. Solid scientific data, as a panelist suggested, are the core clue for understanding the Wolves behaviours, reassuring the population as well as finding suitable solutions to tackle the problems that have arisen.

Then, a real dialogue should be established between the several stakeholders (namely public institutions, hunters, farmers and representatives of environment, biodiversity or animal welfare organisations) in order to think and find out compromised solutions. In this particular regard, the European Commission has created in 2014 a platform on coexistence between People and Large carnivores. This incentive should be rewarded though it is deplorable that COPA COGECA, the main representative committee for farmers at the EU level, has left the table (for unknown reasons). It is all the more unfortunate that their core solutions' proposal during the conference was actually to set up a genuine dialogue between all stakeholders.

Regarding solutions proposed to the concerns here-above mentioned, wolves culling was sadly presented as a viable remedy by a large range of both the panel and the participants. Unfortunately, other means of regulation and resolution of the Human-wolf conflict (e. g. through compensation, a  Catch-Neuter-Release policy or prevention measures) were barely mentioned through the interventions and debates, if at all.

According to Four Paws, solutions for this conflict were mostly to be found amongst these measures, and not through massive wolves culling. A long term and holistic approach should indeed be developed. For instance, it is undeniable than in some areas Wolves attack livestocks because their prey base has become too narrow or the amount of preys available too scarce, due to Human activities (urban expansion, excessive hunting). To this regard, human activities should also been treated as a factor of wolves behaviours towards livestock and the prey base should be therefore improved. This is one of the key actions for large carnivores (more specifically concerning the Carpathian Wolf population) that the European Commission has launched this year.

Wolves culling has never been proved as a viable solution and do not prevent from more damages in years following the culling (see: Alberto Fernandez-Gil, “management and conservation of wolves in Asturias, NW Spain: is population control justified for handling damage-related conflicts” (see Carnivore Damage Prevention news, n°10, spring 2014, p10-14).

More on the event on: