This is one half of a head-to-head debate in response to the question, "Is it time to downgrade protection status for Europe's wolves?" In a separate post, Thomas Waitz argues the other side of the debate
With the adoption of the European Union Directive on the conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora (Habitats Directive) in 1992, a strict protection status of wolves was introduced within the EU.
Back then, this strict protection was well justified. We had no stable wolf population in the EU, except in the north of Spain and in Greece, with both countries falling under a more flexible protection regime under Annex V of the Directive. Since then, a lot has changed.
On one hand, many states and regions with already stable wolf populations, like Finland (within its reindeer management area), Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland and Slovakia, have joined the EU, falling righteously under Annex V.
On the other hand, large carnivores, such as wolves and bears, have expanded rapidly across Europe, due to improving habitat conditions and the success of the EU Habitats Directive. Wolf populations have grown considerably and today we count more stable populations in the EU than ever.
It is difficult for me to comprehend that, 30 years after the adoption of the Habitats Directive and the significant success it has had, we are facing so much resistance towards reassessing the current circumstances.
I am of the opinion that we have to take stock of the current presence of wolf populations according to objective and scientific criteria and take into consideration cross-border realities. We have to identify, for instance, the places where an increasing wolf population is leading to rising tensions with sustainable livestock farming practices.
This will allow us to see where an active wolf management policy is justified and where removals are necessary. An active wolf management policy does not have to mean the reduction of existing populations.
A solution might be limiting the level of expansion by setting maximum targets for wolf population recovery as part of national management plans.
As a result of the current legal framework, wolf populations are exponentially growing and are returning to areas from which they have been absent for decades, raising questions as to how coexistence between local farming communities and these predators should be managed.
Some lawmakers’ reluctance is also ideological in part. The strict protection of the wolf as a species has become a symbol, standing for the supreme fight to protect biodiversity. This is neither a fair nor reasonable way to look at it.
We have to take a comprehensive approach to the protection of biodiversity by not only ensuring the protection of other species but also considering environmental, agricultural as well as socio-economic factors. As a concrete example, I would like to mention the reality of herders’ abandonment of mountain grazing in some high alpine pastures, such as South Tyrol in northern Italy.
The growing presence of wolves has led to pastoral abandonment in these locations, which has had a negative impact on the existing biodiversity, the plant community and soil properties.