Downgrading the protection of wolves in Europe
I have to scratch that itch about wolves again. Last time, I wrote about a pre-print of a fuzzy mapping model of suitable wolf habitat in Scotland (1). The mapping outcome of large blobs of the open landscapes of the Highlands and the Grampians just didn t make sense, especially when significant areas of woodland weren t picked out to the south of those two areas. That paper has now been published in the journal PLoS ONE with very few changes from the pre-print (2).
In the meantime, I got pulled in to contribute to a book on wolves. In needing to find some references on Minimum Viable Population (MVP) for one chapter, I came upon an interesting paper on the capability of Protected Areas to sustain species (3). The paper expanded on MVP through invoking species-specific habitat suitability, species-and location-specific population densities, and the ecological spatial structure of populations. My first thought for the wolf was that this was about their prey, that deer habitat would be wolf habitat. However, it was obvious to me, when I thought back to my experience in Yellowstone National Park, that wolf habitat is too simple a term as it encompasses not just the habitat selection of prey, but also denning opportunities for wolves, and those two are not the same - the Druid Peak pack that I watched at dusk would emerge from the forest behind me and lope down into the openness of the Lamar Valley (4).
It dawned on me then why I had doubted that the Scottish mapping study had got past the stage of a too simplistic exploration, because it didn t take into account both of those two factors. Unusually for scientific journals, PLoS ONE publishes all of the content of peer review as well as author responses alongside published articles. I was thus able to read what the reviewers said about the paper. Reviewer 2 noted that open spaces without vegetation shouldn't be suitable for wolves - "In fact, being without vegetation they should not be habitats rich in potential prey and, moreover, they do not offer shelter or the possibility of denning. The Authors should justify these choices" (click on Author Response under Revision 1 in (5)). The authors responded to this criticism with these weaselly words in the final published version - "It is likely that such open habitats are suitable for wolves in Scotland, due to their high prey density, but they may offer less shelter and fewer denning opportunities" (2). So, while intuitively I knew the mapping was wrong, I now have an explanation for why, as it didn t address shelter and denning opportunities.
Debate on the protection of livestock farming and large carnivores in Europe
This mapping would anyway have been to no avail if various anti-wolf rumblings in Europe had held sway. The alarm was raised by a news article on the 24 November from an animal welfare campaigning group based in Belgium. The Eurogroup for Animals (EFA) reported that the European Parliament had adopted a Joint Motion for a Resolution during a debate on the protection of livestock farming and large carnivores in Europe (6). It said the Resolution called for downlisting of wolves protection status under the Bern Convention. EFA noted that the Resolution did not call on the European Commission to downgrade the protection status of wolves under the Habitats Directive from strict protection in Annex IV to protected in Annex V, but it did call on the Commission to explore flexibilities for derogation of strict protection under the Habitats Directive, and to assess populations of wolves so that their protection status in particular regions could be adapted - meaning downgraded - as soon as they reached a favourable conservation status.
Changes in protection under the Habitats Directive wouldn't have much effect on us now that we have left the European Union (EU). However, changes under the Bern Convention would have greater consequence since its strictures on nature protection still apply to us (7). It didn't ring true, though, that a resolution in the European Parliament could affect the Bern Convention when that is under the auspices of the Council for Europe, an entirely different entity (8). So, I sought out that Joint Motion for a Resolution and found that none of those changes reported by EFA were listed (9). Instead, it seemed a reasonable compromise motion compared to the more wolf hating ones tabled by some of the political groupings of MEPs in the Parliament, such as from the EPP and ECR groups that were heavily slanted towards the interests they represent, whereas the versions from The Left, Renew, Verts/ALE (Greens/EFA) and S&D groups showed they had been a moderating influence in the wording of the Joint Motion tabled on behalf of all the groups - there are links to all those versions at the top of the Joint Motion. You can get a flavour of the polarised views from the debate that followed tabling of those motions (10).
Unfortunately, what I hadn t recognised was that the Joint Motion was not the text that was adopted since it was subject to amendment when the vote after the debate would take place the following day. Thus, the ID group had tabled an amendment that would call for moving the wolf from strict protection in Annex IV to protected in Annex V in the Habitats Directive; and for an assessment procedure to enable the protection status of populations of species to be amended on a regular basis, in accordance with Article 19 of the Habitats Directive, and as soon as the desired conservation status had been reached (11). The EPP group wanted some sensational statistics included such as the wolf population had the potential to exponentially increase by approximately 30 % annually; a list of the of number of livestock killed by wolves in some Member States; an emotive sentence about how desperate, misunderstood and powerless farmers were feeling; welcoming a proposed amendment for the downlisting of the protection of wolves under the Bern Convention in an upcoming meeting, and that the conservation status of the wolf at pan-European level justified a mitigation of the protection status and consequently the adoption of this proposed amendment; and that large carnivore attacks were increasing across Europe, and had already claimed human victims (12). The hatred that EPP has for wolves and other large carnivores can be seen in the cartoon graphic attached to its cynical tweet the night before the vote that depicts a large, black wolf intent on eating Little Red Riding Hood while exhorting protection of the livelihood of farmers (see top left and (13)).
Strict protection of wolves must be maintained
The Motion that was adopted included all the amendments above other than the one calling for downlisting protection of the wolf under the Habitats Directive, and was passed by 306 votes to 225, with 25 abstentions (14,15). It is important to note that none of the actions called for in the resolution are binding on the European Commission. While the European Parliament does have some role in legislative decisions, this Resolution is just the European Parliament expressing an opinion on a matter that it considers important, and in the hope that it may influence the European Commission to action (16). That the European Commission was well aware of the issues is shown by the opening and closing statements in the debate by Janez Lenarčič, the European Commissioner for Crisis Management (10). He said that the Commission had adopted a new guidance document focusing on the strict protection of the species covered by the Habitats Directive, and which clarified the possibilities and conditions for derogations (see (17)); that he did not believe that the crisis of sheep farming or land abandonment were caused by large carnivores; that while the wolf was no longer at risk of extinction in Europe, it had not yet achieved a favourable conservation status in most EU Member States; he refuted that any fatal wolf attacks on humans had been recorded in the 21st century in Europe; that the derogation system was working; that measures for mitigation and coexistence were adequate; and that all of this would be kept under research and review.As much as I dislike derogations from strict protection, they are almost always a feature of conservation legislation and thus it is important to ensure that the regulations are strictly adhered to, that they are not open to interpretation, and should not be misrepresented to satisfy a particular agenda.
That point about wolves not yet reaching favourable conservation status in most EU Member States is why strict protection must be maintained. Some EU countries are stacked with wolves into the thousands, such as Bulgaria, Italy and Romania, but how is taking strict protection away from wolves dispersing on a leading edge into Denmark, the Netherlands and Belgium going to help them become established when they have yet to reach 20? (18). Denmark shows the problem even given the extent of protection afforded the wolf under various Danish laws (Hunting and Game Management Act, Species Conservation Decree, Nature Protection Act) as well as under the EU Habitats Directive. A recent study analysed mortality and disappearance rates of 35 wolves in the heavily cultivated and densely populated Jutland peninsula through which wolves disperse from Germany into Denmark (19). The authors concluded that this area was a population sink due to the unexplained disappearance of wolves, most likely from illegal killing, which was thus acting as a barrier to in-migration from Germany. While the Danish Environmental Protection Agency has sought to protect established breeding pairs and their young offspring, such as in a military training area in West Jutland and a plantation forest near Hovborg in South Jutland (20,21) there is the concern that population growth may be held back by lack of immigrating female wolves (22). I would hope that the Danish Environmental Protection Agency is considering how to reduce the illegal killing in south Jutland, as it is always possible that the EU may initiate action for breach of the Habitats Directive in failing to strictly protect wolves.
What's wrong with Switzerland?
So, no change in the protection status for wolves in the EU, but what about in those countries not in the EU but which are signatories to the Bern Convention, such as Britain? What hope is there for reinstatement in the UK without that strict protection? I went to find the proposed amendment for the downlisting of the protection of wolves under the Bern Convention that had been welcomed in the European Parliament Resolution (see above). It turns out that it was Switzerland that had proposed the amendment that would downgrade the wolf from Appendix II to Appendix III of the Convention (23). This would be considered at a meeting at the end of November in Strasbourg of the Standing Committee on the Bern Convention, the Committee having had the opportunity to study a recent pan-European assessment of the conservation status of the wolf (18). The text accompanying the proposal notes that Switzerland had proposed the amendment back in 2018 at a previous meeting of the Standing Committee, but there was no decision as the Contracting Parties were not ready to take a position - Switzerland did announce though that they wished to return to the proposed amendment on the wolf at a future meeting (24). In fact, Switzerland first tried unsuccessfully to have the protection of the wolf downgraded in 2004 when the Committee decided to postpone the discussion of the Swiss amendment due to a lack of knowledge on the size and distribution trends and threats of the European wolf population (25) and then in 2006 where a persuasive argument was made by the EU that there were significant gaps in monitoring data for certain countries and that population-level management of wolves could be addressed by measures other than changing the protection status of the species (26). What's wrong with Switzerland? There were only 2-3 wolves in Switzerland in 2006 (27) and only 150 now (18).
I am particularly unimpressed by that recent pan-European assessment of the conservation status of the wolf (18). It is appalling in its logic of what constitutes a Red List status for wolves in Europe. They are judged Least Concern in an assessment when based on the Biogeographical Regions of Europe, but then when based on transboundary sub-populations, only three are of Least Concern, five are Near Threatened and one is Vulnerable. The Central European population was considered to be Near Threatened, and since that includes Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands, then at least it gets some way to recognising the situation on the leading edge of dispersal (see above). It was this latter consideration that informed the decision of the Council of the European Union (Government ministers from each EU country) when it agreed a position before-hand to oppose the Swiss amendment (28). Given that block vote from the EU, the amendment was rejected as the required two-thirds majority of the Contracting Parties was not reached (29). Only Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Liechtenstein, Switzerland and Turkey supported the amendment; Monaco, Norway and Serbia abstained; and Andorra and Iceland joined with the EU to vote against. One other country also voted against - the United Kingdom.
For the sake of brevity, and so that I could focus on what could have been a threat to the future prospects of wolves in Britain, I have left out many of the issues raised in the debate in the European Parliament and in the various versions of the Motion, as well as the motivations behind the Swiss proposal for amending the Bern Convention, but these will need addressing if we are to be serious in considering reinstating wolves to Britain. It strikes me there is an awful amount of grandstanding of opinion when it comes to wolves in Europe, my prejudice suggesting that it is mostly from those with anti-wolf sentiment who are not above scaremongering, such as the fallacious statement from the EPP group that there had been human fatalities, and its demonising of wolves in a cartoon graphic (see above). It could be argued that the EPP group was guilty of misdirection when it sought to have included in the European Parliament resolution a reference to the proposed amendment for the downlisting of the protection of wolves under the Bern Convention, since it would have known that the Council of the European Union had already decided not to support it, thus making its passage unlikely (see above). The versions of the motion from the Greens/EFA group and The Left group where aware that it was the policy of the Commission not to lower the protection level of wolves under the Bern Convention (30,31) but the version of the motion from the EPP group conveniently ignored that (32).
Wolves avoid roads, settlements, and areas of higher human disturbance
In an ideal world, wolves would be given their own space rather than be expected to coexist in situations that will inevitably bring them into conflict if we do nothing to mitigate their presence. Janez Lenarčič, the European Commissioner, went to great lengths in the debate in the European Parliament to describe the funding available for preventive actions and investments aimed at mitigating the risk of damage by large carnivores to livestock farming (10). These included the implementation of protection measures for livestock through electric fences, night-time enclosures, acoustic devices, livestock guarding dogs; setting up of emergency teams; the establishment of volunteer and ambassador networks to assist livestock farmers; and the promotion of a participatory approach with the active involvement of all the parties concerned. Member States can compensate up to 100% of the direct and indirect costs of damage caused by protected species.
There is another way. As I have noted before, when given the choice, wolves avoid roads, settlements, and areas of higher human disturbance by way of a spatial and temporal avoidance strategy even in a mixed-use landscape (33). A recent paper on tracking wolves in Belarus gives further evidence of this, but the study area offered a comparison between mixed-use and no-use areas. It showed that Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park was an important refuge for wolves to escape disturbance from public roads and villages (34). Moreover, the wolves selected strongly for areas of stricter nature protection within the national park, such as core zones, favouring these over less strictly protected zones and areas outside the park's boundaries. There was a temporal aspect to their avoidance, being more risk averse during daylight and opting for areas of tree cover, compared to night time when wolves selected more open areas. Doesn't all this argue for a greater understanding of inherent wolf behaviour and an intelligent use of that knowledge rather than just presume that they are an intolerable presence?
There is a paper, unfortunately behind a paywall, that was written nearly four decades ago on the opportunities for reintroducing missing British mammals (34). Mammal ecologist Derek Yalden identified a list of species extirpated by human agency that should be considered for reinstatement amongst which were the wolf, bear, lynx, beaver, boar and moose. He observed that "attempts to do so in Britain had been at best half-hearted or clandestine, and certainly not promoted officially". He feared that there was a "great deal of official cowardice. For there is one species in this list where powerful ecological arguments already exist for its reintroduction....The species is the Wolf". I don t see any evidence of significant official change, but at least the British Government didn't vote to downgrade the protection of wolves.
Mark Fisher 12 December 2022
(1) A wolf-shaped hole in Britain, Self-willed land 6 September 2022
(2) Gwynn V, Symeonakis E (2022) Rule-based habitat suitability modelling for the reintroduction of the grey wolf (Canis lupus) in Scotland. PLoS ONE 17(10): e0265293
(3) Williams, D.R., Rondinini, C. and Tilman, D., 2022. Global protected areas seem insufficient to safeguard half of the world's mammals from human-induced extinction. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 119(24), p.e2200118119
(4) Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem the island of hope, Self-willed land August 2008
(5) Reviewer 2, Peer Review History, Rule-based habitat suitability modelling for the reintroduction of the grey wolf (Canis lupus) in Scotland 21 October 2022
(6) The European Parliament votes to downgrade protection of large carnivores, Eurogroup for animals 24 November 2022
(7) Implications for wild land on leaving the European Union, Self-willed land July 2016
(8) THE BERN CONVENTION. The European treaty for the conservation of nature. Council of Europe
(9) JOINT MOTION FOR A RESOLUTION on the protection of livestock farming and large carnivores in Europe. RC-B9-0503/2022, European Parliament, Strasbourg 22 November 2022
(10) Debate. 17. Protection of livestock farming and large carnivores in Europe. European Parliament Strasbourg Wednesday, 23 November 2022
(11) Amendment 20, ID Group. Joint motion for a resolution - Protection of livestock farming and large carnivores in Europe
(12) Amendments 13-19, EPP Group. Joint motion for a resolution - Protection of livestock farming and large carnivores in Europe
(13) EPP Group (@EPPGroup) Twitter 8:15 PM - Nov 23, 2022
(14) Texts adopted: Protection of livestock farming and large carnivores in Europe. P9_TA(2022)0423, European Parliament, Strasbourg 24 November 2022
(15) Resolution on the protection of livestock farming and large carnivores in Europe. European Parliament 2022/2952(RSP) - 24/11/2022
(16) How plenary works, About Parliament, European Parliament
(17) Guidance document on the strict protection of animal species of Community interest under the Habitats Directive, Commission notice C(2021) 7301 final, European Commission Brussels, 12.10.2021
(18) Assessment of the conservation status of the Wolf (Canis lupus) in Europe. T-PVS/Inf(2022)45. Standing Committee 42nd meeting 28 November - 2 December 2022, CONVENTION ON THE CONSERVATION OF EUROPEAN WILDLIFE AND NATURAL HABITATS, Council of Europe Strasbourg, 2 September 2022
(19) Sunde, P., Collet, S., Nowak, C., Thomsen, P.F., Hansen, M.M., Schulz, B., Matzen, J., Michler, F.U., Vedel‐Smith, C. and Olsen, K. (2021) Where have all the young wolves gone? Traffic and cryptic mortality create a wolf population sink in Denmark and northernmost Germany. Conservation Letters, 14(5): p.e12812
(20) Ulvepar i Skjernreviret i Vestjylland har fået hvalpe, Atlas over Danmarks ulve 18. jul 2022
(21) Ulvepar i Klelund Plantage ved Hovborg har fået hvalpe for andet år i træk, Atlas over Danmarks ulve 12. jul 2022
(22) Sunde, P. & Olsen, K.. 2022. Forventet
bestandstilvækst af ulve i Danmark. Aarhus Universitet, DCE – Nationalt Center
for Miljø og Energi - Fagligt notat nr. 2022|28 21 April 2022
(23) 5.2. Proposal for amendment: Downlisting of the wolf (Canis lupus) from Appendix II to Appendix III of the Convention, DRAFT ANNOTATED AGENDA. T-PVS/Agenda(2022)21, Standing Committee 42nd meeting CONVENTION ON THE CONSERVATION OF EUROPEAN WILDLIFE AND NATURAL HABITATS, Strasbourg, 28 November - 2 December 2022, Council of Europe, Strasbourg, 23rd November 2022
(24) 4.2 Proposal for amendment of the Convention s Appendices: Proposal for moving the
wolf (Canis lupus) from Appendix II to Appendix III of the Bern Convention. LIST OF DECISIONS
AND ADOPTED TEXTS. T-PVS(2018)Misc, Standing Committee 38th meeting on the CONVENTION ON THE CONSERVATION OF EUROPEAN WILDLIFE AND NATURAL HABITATS Strasbourg, 27-30 November 2018 Strasbourg, Council of Europe 30 November 2018
(25) 3.1. Swiss proposal to pass Canis lupus from Appendix II to Appendix III, REPORT T-PVS (2004) 16, Standing Committee 24th meeting on the CONVENTION ON THE CONSERVATION OF EUROPEAN WILDLIFE AND NATURAL HABITATS Strasbourg, 29 November-3 December 2004, Council of Europe 14 December 2004
(26) 3.1. Swiss proposal to move Canis lupus from Appendix II to Appendix III, REPORT T-PVS (2006) 24, Standing Committee 26th meeting on the CONVENTION ON THE CONSERVATION OF EUROPEAN WILDLIFE AND NATURAL HABITATS Strasbourg, 27 - 30 November 2006, Council of Europe Strasbourg, 11 December 2006
(27) The status of the wolf (Canis lupus) in Europe: Amendments: Switzerland proposal to pass Canis lupus from Appendix II to Appendix III of the Convention, T-PVS/Inf (2006) 4, Standing Committee 26th meeting on the CONVENTION ON THE CONSERVATION OF EUROPEAN WILDLIFE AND NATURAL HABITATS, Strasbourg, 27-30 November2006, WWF for Council of Europe Strasbourg, 5 October 2006
(28) Proposal for a COUNCIL DECISION on the position to be taken on behalf of the European Union, in the forty second meeting of the Standing Committee of the Convention on the conservation of European wildlife and natural habitats, COM(2022) 543 final 2022/0332(NLE), EUROPEAN COMMISSION Brussels, 14.10.2022
(29) 5.2 PROPOSAL FOR AMENDMENT: DOWNLISTING OF THE WOLF (CANIS LUPUS) FROM APPENDIX II TO APPENDIX III OF THE CONVENTION, LIST OF DECISIONS AND ADOPTED TEXTS T-PVS(2022)MISC, Standing Committee 42nd meeting on the CONVENTION ON THE CONSERVATION OF EUROPEAN WILDLIFE AND NATURAL HABITATS Strasbourg, hybrid meeting, 28 November - 2 December 2022, Council of Europe Strasbourg 2nd December 2022
(30) MOTION FOR A RESOLUTION on the protection of livestock farming and large carnivores in Europe, B9-0519/2022, Greens/EFA Group, European Parliament 21.11.2022
(31) MOTION FOR A RESOLUTION on the protection of livestock farming and large carnivores in Europe, B9 0503/2022, The Left group, European Parliament 21.11.2022
(32) MOTION FOR A RESOLUTION on the protection of livestock farming and large carnivores in Europe, B9 0504/2022, EPP group, European Parliament 21.11.2022
(33) The separation between wolves and humans in modified landscapes, Self-willed land March 2020
(34) Smith, A. F., Ciuti, S., Shamovich, D., Fenchuk, V., Zimmermann, B., & Heurich, M. (2022). Quiet islands in a world of fear: Wolves seek core zones of protected areas to escape human disturbance. Biological Conservation, 276, 109811
(35) Yalden, D. W. (1986) Opportunities for reintroducing British mammals. Mammal Review, 16(2): 53-63