Plan to Allow Wolf Hunting in Europe to Spare Livestock Could Backfire, Some Scientists Say

Plan to Allow Wolf Hunting in Europe to Spare Livestock Could Backfire, Some Scientists Say

“Wolves are even more controversial in Europe than the US. Pre-firearms Europeans lived with wolves for millennia; fear of wolves  was reality-based and deeply ingrained in European culture.


NOTE: this article was originally published to on January 24, 2023. It was written by Gennaro Tomma. Photo above by Axel Gomille/NPL/Minden Pictures


Many farmers support proposal to downgrade protection of wolves, which kill thousands of sheep on the continent each year


Far from being confined to folk tales, wolves in Europe are startlingly plentiful today. Now, governments want to reduce the numbers to protect livestock, sparking debate—with scientists caught in the fray.

Late last month, the European Commission released a proposal to weaken protections for wolves living in the 27 nations of the European Union, drawing criticism from environmental groups. Just days later, environmentalists persuaded a court in Switzerland, which is not a member of the EU, to partially block a new government plan to kill up to 70% of the nation’s wolf population.

After centuries of hunting, only small and scattered populations of wolves survived in Europe by the 1970s, but recent studies estimate some 20,000 animals now roam the continent. The rebound is largely due to protections provided to wolves and other large carnivores under the Berne Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats, a 40-year-old conservation agreement.

On 20 December 2023, the Commission responded by releasing a proposal to downgrade the wolf’s protection status from “strictly protected” to “protected.” The change would allow EU nations to cull wolves at scale for the first time in 4 decades, although countries would still be obligated to ensure that wolves maintain a “favorable” conservation status. Each nation would decide its own culling quotas, time frames, and culling methods, which supporters of the plan say will make it easier to keep wolf populations at healthy but more manageable levels.

“The comeback of wolves is good news for biodiversity in Europe, but the concentration of wolf packs in some European regions has become a real danger, especially for livestock,” said Ursula von der Leyen, president of the Commission, in a statement that accompanied the proposal.

Many environmental groups have criticized the plan. In an open letter, some 300 organizations including the World Wildlife Fund and Rewilding Europe accused the commission of soliciting anecdotal evidence on the impact on wolves during an “irregular” consultation process, rather than gathering reliable scientific data. “We are concerned that the discussion of this issue has so far been largely dominated and driven by farming industry and hunting interest representatives,” they write, pointing to a survey that suggests most rural inhabitants believe wolves should continue to be strictly protected. “Unless there is substantial new science-based evidence gathered by the European Commission services, we believe the science and public opinion are clear: the modification of the protection status of the wolf … is not justified.”

Some scientists agree, pointing to a lack of evidence that culling actually reduces predation on sheep. “Implementing selective culls would be expensive, and in most cases ineffective,” says Gianluca Damiani, a wolf expert at Tuscia University. Killing wolves and breaking up packs could actually make the problem worse, he says, because domestic livestock make an easy meal for a wolf that is lost and alone. Damiani would prefer to see any funding earmarked for culling instead go toward providing protections for livestock, such as electric fences and dogs.

Further research is needed to understand how to effectively cull wolves, agrees Luigi Boitani, chair of the Large Carnivore Initiative for Europe and a leading wolf expert. For example, it’s still unclear what percentage of wolves has to be removed in order to reduce livestock kills. Boitani says reducing protection for wolves makes sense “from a continental perspective,” given that the European wolf population is in good health overall. He worries, however, about the EU’s plan to allow individual counties to make decisions about culls. Many EU nations— such as Belgium and Slovenia—do not have self-sufficient numbers of wolves. To avoid decimating small, vulnerable wolf populations, wolf management should instead happen at the European level, he says.

Scientists and environmentalists have expressed similar misgivings about Switzerland’s wolf cull. In a November open letter, conservation groups wrote that the country’s “radical” measures to reduce the wolf population by up to 70% could threaten the species’ survival not only in Switzerland, but also in nearby regions of the Alps. Last month a court ruled that ongoing culls in particular cantons must be suspended while it considers a legal challenge brought by environmental groups; according to the most recent data, 32 wolves have so far been killed out of a total population of about 300.

The EU’s proposal still needs to go through a protracted process before becoming law. Among other steps, any change to wolves’ conservation status will need unanimous approval from all 27 EU member states. “The road is long,” Boitani says. “Downlisting remains probable but not certain.”



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