Friday, August 18, 2006

Wolf Comeback in Scandinavia Stifled by Public Outcry

James Owen for National Geographic News

The call of the wild can once again be heard in forests in Sweden and Norway, heralding the recovery of the gray wolf. The wolf had been driven to extinction during the last century, and the animals' comeback since the 1980s has the elements for a conservation success story. But the growing presence of wolves in Scandinavia has polarized residents there and put the mammal's long-term future in the region in doubt.

Many rural communities have brought strong opposition to wolf conservation, saying the wild predators kill their livestock and hunting dogs. Public opinion in Norway, which has a large rural population, has tended to side against the wolf, and in Sweden the carnivore also appears to be losing support. Increasing numbers of gray wolves are being killed illegally, researchers say. At the same time the population has been isolated and, as a result, weakened by inbreeding.

With the Swedish countryside seen as a key battleground in what's expected to be a close-run general election in September, the wolf debate is at the top of the political agenda. "All the political parties are now saying you must listen to the people living with the wolves," said wolf researcher Olof Liberg of the Grimsö Wildlife Research Station in Riddarhyttan, Sweden.

According to Stockholm-based ecologist and commentator Petter Hedberg, the wolf in Sweden has become "a symbol for the way the political power in Stockholm dictates the way people live in rural areas, without [the politicians] having to face the consequences of their decision."

Controversial Conviction

Gray wolves were thought to be extinct in Sweden and Norway by the 1960s following centuries of persecution. Unexpectedly in the 1980s a single breeding pack was discovered in south-central Sweden.Studies suggest the pack came to the area naturally from the Finnish-Russian border region more than 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) away.

The wolves had been granted government protections since the 1960s in Sweden and the 1970s in Norway that made it illegal to shoot wolves in the wild. The latest surveys by Swedish and Norwegian researchers with Skandulv (the Scandinavian Wolf Research Project) indicate that the wolf population is currently growing at a rate of about 20 percent annually. Latest estimates suggest there are around 125 gray wolves living wild in Sweden and about 25 in Norway.

The population's stronghold is the densely forested central southern region of the Scandinavian peninsula (map of Sweden). But as wolf numbers increase, the animals are moving closer to human territory, and conflicts are on the rise.

Last year a sheep farmer from Dalsland in central Sweden was sentenced to six months' imprisonment for illegally shooting a wolf that he claimed had recently attacked his flock. The conviction was followed by a successful campaign by the farming and hunting lobby to allow farmers to kill wolves that pose an immediate threat to fenced livestock. "Before, you had to wait until the wolf had actually put its teeth in the animal," Liberg said.

This month Swedish media reported that rural campaigners are seeking to petition the Swedish Parliament for a further relaxation of wolf protection measures. Their proposal would allow wolves that attack hunting dogs or livestock outside of fenced areas to be shot.

Maximum Number

Governments already place limits on the number of breeding packs or individuals that can exist within their borders. Norway, which has around two million free-grazing sheep, wants just three reproducing packs. The government there has established a wolf zone next to the Swedish border outside of which wolves may be shot.

Sweden has a preliminary population target of 200 wolves. Liberg, coordinator of Skandulv, is now doubtful whether this figure will be increased. "If you had asked me five years ago, I would certainly have said, Yes," the researcher added. "Now I'm not so sure, because the wolf issue has become hotter politically." If the Swedish wolf population continues to grow at the current rate, he says, this will probably mean licensed culling.

According to a new Skandulv study yet to be published, fatalities of radio-tagged wolves suggest that up to 20 percent of the Scandinavian population is killed illegally each year. "That's about 25 to 30 wolves," Liberg added. "It's a very heavy drain on the population." Wolf researchers are also worried about the health of a population founded by just a few individuals. Such packs have little genetic diversity and are vulnerable to inbreeding. As result, Skandulv says, litter sizes are decreasing.

And further wolf migrants from the north are being prevented from coming to the rescue, Liberg says. "The northern third of Sweden [part of Lapland] is a reindeer husbandry area, and the Saami herders say they cannot tolerate any wolves at all," he explained.

Proposals to import new blood from Finland or Russia are seen as too controversial, Liberg adds. "The politicians are not ready for that," he said. "In the long run we need new wolves," he added, "Sooner or later the litter sizes will be so small they will not compensate for mortality."

  • National Geographic