CASTELBUONO, Sicily (CN) – Across Europe, the long-forgotten wolf is making a comeback after decades of protection from hunting. But as the wolf packs grow so do the angry pleas from farmers, shepherds and fearful communities.
Reports of wolf attacks on flocks of sheep and other livestock are common in Italy, France and Germany. With the attacks come growing demands by many officials to strike back and exterminate the predators – as was done for centuries.
“We can’t accept that wolves come this close to homes in a valley,” said Maurizio Fugatti, the president of Trento, an Italian province in the Alps, in late January after wolves preyed on lambs near a town. “Citizens can’t run such risks.”
He called the wolves a threat to public security, and now police, firefighters and forest service agents in Trento are being asked to investigate wolf sightings.
Against insistence by wildlife experts and environmentalists that wolf attacks on humans are extremely rare, some members of the public have taken matters into their own hands.
Last year in Saxony, a female wolf was shot and dropped into a lake with a concrete weight attached to her. Other poachers have strung up the carcasses of their quarry to protest bans on wolf hunts.
Gray wolves once roamed throughout Europe but by the early 1900s they were largely exterminated. By the time Western and Eastern Europe banned the killing of wolves in the late 1970s, there weren’t many left to hunt.
In Western Europe, one of the only places where wolves still roamed was in the central and southern Apennine Mountains of Italy. Scientists believe their numbers were down to about a hundred.
It was from the forests and craggy peaks of the Apennines that wolves slowly began to spread out again. At the same time, populations in Eastern Europe also began recovering.
In the past two decades, wolf packs have returned to the Alps and begun repopulating parts of Germany, Italy, France, Austria and Switzerland that hadn’t seen wolves in a very long time. Wolves have even been spotted recently in places like Brittany, in northern France, and Belgium.
Experts say bans on hunting and baiting are only partly responsible for the recovery of a species whose hunting skills are nearly fabled. Skilled at scavenging and adaptation as well, wolves have likely benefitted from the desertion of rural areas and Alpine valleys by humans.
Without even taking into account Russia and Ukraine, there are about 12,000 wolves in Europe today, about twice as many as in the contiguous United States.
But European Union officials say wolves still need protection even as their numbers grow. EU law allows the killing of wolves when they pose a danger to humans and limited hunts that do not put the wolf’s recovery in danger.
“In many parts of the European Union, wolf populations remain in vulnerable conservation status,” Daniela Stoycheva, a spokeswoman for the European Commission, said in an email. “For this reason EU rules ensure protection of the species.”
While environmentalists and wildlife lovers are rejoicing the return of the wolf, farmers are seething.
A dramatic example of this took place in 2015 when angry French farmers took two managers of the Vanoise National Park in the French Alps hostage for a night, demanding to be allowed to hunt wolves. This extreme action, which occurred during a spate of so-called “bossnapping” incidents in France, was prompted by a series of wolf attacks on livestock.
In the wide-open pastures of France, sheep are easy pickings for the population of 360 wolves that stalk the French Alps. Wolves slaughter thousands of sheep each year, officials say. France responded in 2017 by allowing hunters to cull 10 percent of France’s wolf population a year.
Livestock losses are compensated by national governments and the European Union. Funds are also available to help farmers buy electric fences, guard dogs and other measures to deter wolves.
Many farmers, though, argue the only sure way of protecting their livestock is by killing wolves. The livestock losses also bring into relief how Europe’s shepherds no longer tend their flocks as herdsmen traditionally did, staying with their animals by day and night and guarding them with dogs.
In Germany, where the wolf was exterminated more than a century ago, a pair of wolves moved in from Poland in 2000 and since then their numbers have rebounded. German authorities now estimate there are 60 wolf packs.
A recent NPR report quoted German farmer Marco Hintze as saying wolf hunts should be legal. He said city folk who oppose killing wolves don’t understand the problems farmers face.
“They think, ‘Aww, it’s a nice wolf, and he needs to be in nature and be free.’ But people raised in the countryside, they don’t need the wolf anymore,” Hintze said.
The politics over wolves is largely partisan.
In Germany, the right-leaning Christian Democratic Union of Chancellor Angela Merkel favors more hunting. In Italy, that’s also the position of the League, a far-right party that is part of a national government coalition.
Authorities are seeking a balance.
Earlier this month, Italy’s environment minister, who is aligned with the left-leaning 5-Star Movement, headed to the Alps to hold talks with regional officials. Last year, northern Italian regions passed laws to allow wolf hunts, a move that the environment minister blocked.
The minister, Sergio Costa, said he would soon present a new national wolf-management plan.
“As I have always said, wolves and bears cannot be touched,” he tweeted.
Costa’s office did not provide the plan’s details, but he said wolf management needs to vary from valley to valley, taking in the interests of both the animals and farmers.
Environmentalists are optimistic.
“It appears that this new plan is great,” Marco Galaverni with the World Wildlife Fund in Italy said in a telephone interview.
Galaverni said a previous national management plan had foreseen culling wolves, but that Costa appears unwilling to allow that. He praised Costa for blocking the regional laws allowing wolf hunts. “You have to do national management,” he said. “It is not something that can be done on the local level.”
“We know from scientific studies that culling is not the best method for management,” Galaverni added.
But this fight is far from over.
Arno Kompatscher, the president of the mountainous Bolzano province in Italy, said a new management plan must protect shepherds carrying out an ancient way of life.
“Anyone who says it’s never necessary to eliminate (wolves) is someone who comes from urban areas without knowledge of the situation,” he said, as reported by ANSA, an Italian news agency.
Kompatscher advocated taking an approach similar to that in Scandinavian countries. “You certainly can’t say they are Medieval in the way they protect the environment,” he said.
In fact, Scandinavian countries are hardly paragons when it comes to wolf conservation.
Last June, the European Commission threatened to take legal action against Sweden if it did not take more steps to protect wolves. Even with a dwindling wolf population, Sweden repeatedly permitted hunters to kill wolves in recent years. It was “a systematic practice” that the commission alleged violated EU law. Under pressure and with the wolf population down to about 300 animals, Sweden banned hunts last year.
Its neighbor, Norway, has been even more unrestrained in its hunts. Norway is aligned to the EU but not a member of the bloc, thus not bound to all its rules.
This winter, Norway once again gave the go-ahead for a wolf hunt even though its wolf population is on the verge of extinction.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.