After the European Court of Justice ruled on the Finnish wolf hunting quota, we ask: Can other European countries continue to kill the wolf?
In October 2019, the European Court of Justice made a preliminary ruling to clarify the interpretation of Article 16 of the Habitat Directive. Article 16 allows to derogations for protected species, i.e. allows killing individuals of protected species in certain cases. Many member states have exploited this article to justify culling or hunting quota for the wolf.
Please also read: EU Court Rules On Finnish Wolf Hunting Quota
What does the EU court ruling mean?
While many NGOs interpretated the ruling as a tightening of the protection status of the wolf, the European Federation for Hunting saw it as a “Green light for hunting as a management tool for wolf”. The Finnish minister for agriculture and forestry called “the stricter-than-expected ruling on wolf hunting for population management purposes a major setback.” As so often, their own agenda obviously influenced reaction to the legal document, which is not a final verdict and thus leave space for interpretation.
However, the European Commission has left no doubt that huntinq quotas cannot be a substitute for prevention measures. Even though the Comission has not objected any quotas yet, it emphasizes livestock protection and information about human-wolf-coexistence instead. The Commission also made clear that a change of the protection status of the wolf will not happen anytime soon. After a fitness check of the Habitats Directive in 2016 all member states, the European parliament and stakeholders unanimously confirmed the directive.
[…] lethal control should not be a substitute for a comprehensive system of measures to attain favourable conservation status. Rather, it is an alternative to consider in cases of problematic animals for which prevention has proved ineffective […]
If the European Comission does not intervene itself , NGOs might use the court ruling to stop hunting quotas in court. Tapiola is not the only NGO, who has sued the national government over the hunting quotas. And this ruling seems to be another foundation to prove the unlawfullness of quota. It clearly states that quota can only be the last step, if all prevention measures failed. They also have to be scientifically justified and closely monitored.
Where are the arguments for hunting quotas?
The main arguments for huntinq quota are the same over and over again. It protects humans. It reduces livestock kills. It reduces poaching. It increases social acceptance. However, research and experience have time and time shown again that none of this true. Wolves do not pose a substantial threat to humans. Hunting hardly reduced livestock kills and livestock protection is more effective. Lifting the protection of wolves decreases its social acceptance and thus increases poaching.
So, science doesn´t support hunting quotas. Livestock protection is still not used in many areas throughout Europe as a prevention measure. And the case of Finland, where 20 alpha males were killed, shows that hunting is often uncontrolled. How do European countries then still justify culling wolves?
Let´s have a look at the EU countries that use lethal management of wolves. A study issued by the European Union in February 2018 lists twelve EU member states that use lethal management. Several hundred wolves are legally killed in these country every year.
Which countries use hunting quotas?
Spain has one the biggest populations with 2 000 – 3 000 wolves (Source). However, due to isolation of the Iberian wolf population, culling still hinders the recovery of the population. Only a long-term national wolf management can guarantee the future of the Iberian wolf. In neighbouring France, the president himself announced an increase of the quota from 12 to 19% of the French wolf population this year. The raise is based on an arbitrary number of 500 wolves that French authorities see as an adequate number for their country.
In Eastern and Central Europe we find both the biggest wolf populations in Europe and the most countries with hunting quotas. Slovenia has allowed the killing of 11 wolves despite a population below 100 wolves. It has faced lawsuits and backlash after the decision. Croatia, Romania and Bulgaria also set quotas.
Up north, where both wolf and human population density are much lower than in the rest of Europe, quotas are especially hard to justify. The European Comission already urged Sweden to change its wolf management. A limit of 210 wolves in such a vast, empty country can hardly be justified. Especially because the Scandinavian population is isolated, also hunted in Norway and hence vulnerable. Sweden still continued the culling for years. In Finland the public opinion in rural areas about the wolf seems to be especially bad. Other than in most countries, not livestock kills, but the deaths of hunting dogs are the main issue here. Even though the wolf management plan might aim to increase acceptance, culling cannot be an experimental measure to reach this goal. The EU-court ruling made that clear.
Special rules for some countries
A special case are the countries Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovakia. When they joined the European Union in 2003, they made a special provision. The agreement puts the wolf under Annex V instead of Annex IV of the Habitat Directive in these countries. Annex V states that for the listed species “taking in the wild and exploitation may be subject to management measures”. This means culling is a legimitate management tool, if a favourable conservation status is reached. Hence, the ruling about Article 16 does not effect these countries.
So, can European countries continue to kill the wolf?
Of course the answer is not a simple yes or no. Yes, legal killing of wolves will continue. The countries that list the wolf in Annex V have solid legal ground for their quotas. But the the ruling of the European Court of Justice, the efforts of the European Comission and even more the protest of NGOs and large parts of society will make sure countries will be careful with allowing hunting. Luckily, the wolf population in Europe is thriving. Wolves are even settling in densely populated areas like the Netherlands. The number of wolves in the EU has even surpassed the number in the United States (incl. Alaska).
The real question is: How is it possible that in Italy 205 inhabitants per km² live together with 2000 wolves without killing them, while in Finland 16 inhabitants per km² cannot can apparently not coexist with 250 wolves?