- Date: September 30, 2021
Wolves, along with other predators like bears, lynx, and wolverines, are making a comeback in Europe. Many of these predator species were systematically eradicated and almost driven to extinction in the 19th and 20th centuries in an effort to prevent livestock predation.
Thanks to increased conservation efforts, wolf numbers are recovering—there are now around 12,000 individuals across the European continent—which is important to help restore natural processes that keep prey species like deer and wild boars at healthy numbers.
The return of the wolf, however, is not entirely well-received by everyone across Europe, as its comeback revives the risk of the same human-wildlife conflict that led to the wolf’s previous decline. Today, this conflict can be managed through various measures, including the use of electric fences and guard dogs to protect livestock from predation. But only putting in place such measures and preventing or reducing predation doesn’t always help because existing social tensions can impact negative perceptions surrounding wolf presence. Attitudes towards wolves vary widely across different countries and among various interest groups—including conservationists, hunters, and livestock owners—so implementing integrated conflict management approaches alone cannot succeed without addressing the underlying drivers of the social conflict among stakeholders.
How different countries across Europe are responding
In 2015, a wolf was spotted for the first time in the Netherlands after a 150-year absence—it was a male from Germany looking for a new territory. The wolf population has since rapidly expanded and news about the wolf in the Netherlands is a hot and divisive topic. Research by the country’s Ministry of Agriculture, Nature, and Food Quality shows that 54% of the Dutch think that the wolf deserves a place in the Netherlands and 76% do not see the wolf as a threat to humans. But others are concerned with the growing wolf population. Wolves that move through the country in search of a new territory are known to prey on livestock such as sheep, and sheep owners worry for the well-being of their animals and the high costs involved in implementing protective measures. Current subsidy schemes that provide funding support for human-wolf conflict preventive measures, such as the installation of electric fencing, are not yet available everywhere in the Netherlands and the subsidies that do exist only cover land that is considered established wolf territory. Damage caused by wolves elsewhere, as they search for new territory, is not covered by current subsidies. The absence of widely applicable human-wolf conflict management measures can lead to rising discontent and resentment towards wolves among impacted communities.
In sparsely populated Norway, where there is much less damage from wolves compared to other large carnivores like bears and wolverines, the wolf is still embroiled in a heated social and political debate. The animal has become symbolic of the rural-urban divide where rural communities do not feel their concerns are recognized by urban populations that value conservation. It is less a conservation/human-wildlife conflict issue and more a social/political one. Despite plenty of wolf habitat and a national compensation scheme for farmers who lose livestock to wolf predation, the deep-rooted social conflict between community groups must be addressed for the benefit of both people and wildlife.
In Romania, there isn’t much human-wolf conflict thanks to dedicated conflict management measures to prevent damage by wolves.
Many flocks of sheep are well protected with electric wire fences or by the Carpathian sheepdog, an effective age-old tradition that may have even helped the wolf survive throughout the years.
Romanians have lived with wolves for centuries, although during the Communist era, the animal was portrayed as the 'enemy of the people' and was hunted and poisoned as part of a significant campaign to eradicate wolves. The wolf eventually became a protected species in the early 90’s, although it was not until 2016 that a ban on wolf hunting was introduced. About 2,500-3,000 wolves now live in the Romanian Carpathians in large contiguous areas with few roads and lots of prey. There are still incidents of sheep being attacked by wolves, but people are more tolerant and there is less conflict overall.
A future for all
Misconceptions about wolves, fear, politics, conflicting interests, and disinformation influence the way wolves are managed in Europe. As Romania demonstrates, it is possible for humans and wildlife like wolves to live together if the right approaches are taken. A recently published report by WWF and UNEP emphasizes that along with implementing integrated and holistic approaches, we must address the deeper, underlying causes of conflict and develop solutions with affected communities as active and equal participants in the process.