Can Swedish habitat analysis solve human-wolf conflict?

A study has identified areas in Sweden that, from a human perspective, are most suitable for the wolves to repopulate. There are approximately 400 wolves in Sweden, which live mostly in the central part of southern Sweden. However humans densely populate this region as well, causing a human-wolf conflict. This conflict has resulted in illegal wolf killing.

The researchers analysed the current habitat preferences of the wolves in Sweden to identify areas that are similar to their current habitat, but with less impact on human society. The theory is that if the wolves were to populate these identified regions, instead of remaining where there is a high human population, then this would reduce human-wolf conflict and illegal wolf killing. But this is an an ‘out of sight out of mind’ strategy.

Please also read: Discussion about wolf heats up in Sweden

Human-Wolf Conflict

The human-wolf conflict has spanned centuries in Europe, and in the past the wolf was hunted almost to extinction. Fast forward to the 1960’s and there were only 10 wolves in Scandinavia, and no breeding populations in Sweden. This led to the Swedish government  to formally protect wolves in 1966. However illegal wolf killing and licensed hunts continue to this day, even though the wolf is protected under the EU Habitats Directive. The wolf population is threatened by human activity, but also by inbreeding and geographic isolation. Nowadays in Europe, the human-wolf conflict is typically a human-human conflict about wolves.

This study, published in Biological Conservation, suggested that 50% of Sweden’s land is both suitable for the wolf. This 50% is similar to land the wolf currently inhabits, and causes minimal impact to human society. The wolf currently inhabits only around 10% of the land in Sweden. The researchers looked at cultural, environmental, socio-economic and ethnic factors to model the potential redistribution of the wolf across Sweden.

Results

The study results highlight that the current wolf distribution is influenced by humans and policy. Of course, because the wolf is very limited in where it lives due to the human-wolf conflict that rages all across Europe.

The results of the study also suggest that the best parts of Sweden for the wolves to repopulate are in the north, outside of the reindeer grazing zone. What is crucial to note is that the scientists use the human perspective in their approach. The study identifies the habitats that humans believe are suitable for wolf populations.

However, a wolf is like the Wilderness in that it is self-willed, and it chooses where it wants to live. Identifying suitable areas for the wolf is a questionable undertaking, as in another light their results could be used to push the wolves out of their current habitat.

Next steps for the wolf

The study concludes that the repopulation of wolves into Northern Sweden, which is comprised of boreal forests and less humans, would reduce conflict. However the wolf chooses where it wants to live, and is protected under the European Habitats Directive. We cannot make a wolf move, or control where it travels with political, cultural, economic or ethnic decisions.

We know for example that in Germany, there are over 35 wolf packs, which live in close proximity to human society. Here people coexist with wolves – wolf and human have minimum impact on each others lives. In fact Germany recently published a report saying that whilst wolf numbers have increased by a third, damages decreased by a half.

Similar study undertaken in Austria contradicted by the wolf itself!

A similar approach has been undertaken in Austria in which areas where are already populated by wolf has been deemed less suitable and areas in the high alpine mountain range has been identified as very suitable for the wolf –  but the wolf chose exactly the opposite habitats and has settled in areas which were deemed as less suitable for the wolf.

Next steps for Sweden and Europe

So instead of asking ‘where shall we put the wolves to minimise human-wolf conflict’ perhaps more appropriate questions should be ‘why has the wolf chosen to live in the 10% of Sweden it currently inhabits’ and ‘how can we support Sweden and minimise negative feelings towards wolves’. The study is suggesting to move the wolf away from human civilisation, an ‘out of sight out of mind’ strategy. Perhaps instead we should consider adapting human mindsets and where necessary, livestock protection strategies.

The biggest challenge to the human-wolf conflict is the perceptions of people towards the wolf. Policy and wolf-hunting are ultimately influenced by people’s attitudes. Wolves are an important part of an ecosystem, and have a place in Europe’s landscapes. Moreover, they are not a threat to human life, and only a minimal threat to livestock if the farmer has training and support from the government.

Awareness of the wolf as a natural and welcome part of Europe needs to happen all across Europe. For example Sweden’s neighbour, Norway. The government plans to kill half the wolf population.  How will wolf conservation work in Sweden when the same species is being killed just across the border?


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Join more 100+ forest experts demanding a radical change in German forestry management.

Sign the Open Letter to the German Federal Minister of Forestry and Agriculture

Open Letter to the German Ministry of Food and Agriculture

Federal Ministry of
Food and Agriculture
Minister Julia Klöckner
11055 Berlin

Dear Minister Klöckner,

The current situation of the forest in Germany is worrying. It is a forest crisis not only driven by climate change. The current crisis management of the forestry industry is backward-looking and harmful to the forest. The declaration announced at the meeting of ministers in Moritzburg can be described as a `Moritzburg declaration of bankruptcy´. We call on the state forestry industry to, instead of expensive rushed actions, finally carry out an expert analysis of its own work and to involve all stakeholders in this process. What is called for is a consistent departure from plantation forestry and a radical shift towards a management that treats the forest as an ecosystem and no longer as a wood factory.

On 1stAugust 2019, five forestry ministers of CDU and CSU-led states adopted a so-called “master plan” for the forest in Germany, which was affected by heat, bark beetles, fire and drought. As of 2020, the federal government is to make 800 million euros available as a reaction to climate change. This money is to be used to repair the damage caused, reforest the damaged areas and carry out `climate-adapted´ forest conversion – including the use of non-native tree species that have not yet been cultivated in the forest. Research should therefore focus on on tree species suitability and forest plant breeding in the future – keyword: `Climate-adapted forest of the future 2100´.

Remarkably, the damage caused primarily by the extreme drought of 2018 is attributed solely to climate change. Climate change is meeting a forest that is systemically ill due to the planting of non-native tree species, species poverty, monocultures, uniform structure, average low age, mechanical soil compaction, drainage etc. A healthy, resistant forest would look differently! The master plan emphasizes: sustainable, multifunctional and `active´ forest management remains indispensable – and thereby means that its unnatural state cannot be changed. Reference is made to the `carbon storage and substitution effects´ of wood products. The use of wood, e.g. in the construction industry, should be increased and thus the demand for wood should be further fueled – while knowing that the forest in Germany already cannot meet this demand. In fact, forest owners are suffering from poor timber prices due to an oversupply of trunk wood on the world market.

All these demands make clear: the current forestry strategy, which has been practiced for decades, should not change in principle. The concept is simple: cut down trees – plant trees. At best, the `design´ of the future artificial forests consisting of perfectly calculated tree species mixtures, that are believed to survive climate change without damages, can be changed. In all seriousness, the intention is to continue selling the public a so-called `future strategy´ to save the forest. This strategy seamlessly follows the model of a wood factory, that is met with general rejection and must be regarded as a failure in view of the coniferous plantations that are currently collapsing on a large scale. An essential part of the forests that have currently died is exactly the part that was reestablished in 1947 as coniferous monocultures on a much larger area than today. There is only one difference to the situation at the time: considerable amounts of money are to be made available from taxes for forest owners this time.

Climate change is progressing, and this, without a doubt, has massive impacts on all terrestrial ecosystems, including forests. To pretend that the last two years of drought alone caused the disaster is too cheap. On closer inspection, the disaster is also the result of decades of a forestry focused on conifers – in a country that was once naturally dominated by mixed deciduous forests. People do not like to admit that for more than 200 years they have relied on the wrong species of commercial tree (spruce) and have also created artificial, ecologically highly unstable and thus high-risk forest ecosystems. A whole branch of business has become dependent on coniferous wood. And now the German coniferous timber industry is on the verge of bankruptcy.

It would only have been honest and also a sign of political greatness if you and the forestry ministers in Moritzburg had declared: Yes, our forestry industry has made mistakes in the past, and yes, we are ready for a relentless analysis that takes into account not only purely silvicultural, but also forest-ecological aspects. Instead, you have confined yourselves to pre-stamped excuses that are already familiar to everyone and that lack any self-critical reflection.

Clear is: We finally need resting periods for the forest in Germany, which has been exploited for centuries. We need a new, ecologically oriented concept for future forest – not a hectic `forest conversion´, but simply forest development closer towards nature. This gives the forest as an ecosystem the necessary leeway to self-regulate and react to the emerging environmental changes. We need a systemic forest management that is no less profitable than the present one, but must be substantially more stable and resistant to foreseeable environmental changes. The aid for forest owners that all citizens are now required to pay through their taxes is only politically justified in the interest of common good, if the forests of the future that are being promoted by it, do not end up in the next disaster, some of which is produced by the forest management itself.

That is why the signatories request from the the Federal Government, and in particular you, Mrs Klöckner, a master plan worthy of the name:

On disaster areas (mainly in public forests!) reestablishment through natural forest development (ecological succession), among other things with pioneer tree species, is to be brought about. In private forests, ecological succession for reestablishment must be purposefully promoted. Larger bare areas should be planted with a maximum of 400 to 600 large plants of native species per hectare in order to permit ecological succession parallelly.
To promote ecological succession, the areas should no longer be completely and mechanically cleared; as much wood as possible should be left in the stand (to promote optimum soil and germ bed formation, soil moisture storage and natural protection against browsing). In private forests, the abandonment of use in disaster areas should be specifically promoted for ecological reasons and in order to relieve the burden on the timber market.

Regarding the promotion of reestablishment plantings in private forests: priority for native tree species (of regional origin); choose wide planting distances in order to leave enough space for the development of pioneer species. For the forests of the future: Minimize thinning (low-input principle), build up stocks through targeted development towards old thick trees, protect the inner forest climate / promote self-cooling function (should have highest priority due to rapidly progressing climate change!), prohibit heavy machinery, refrain from further road construction and expansion, permit and promote natural self-regulatory development processes in the cultivated forest and on (larger) separate areas in the sense of an compound system; drastically reduce the density of ungulate game (reform of hunting laws).

Like in the field of organic agriculture, which has been established since the 1980s, the crisis of our forests should be the reason today to transform at least two existing forestry-related universities. They should be turned into universities for interdisciplinary forest ecosystem management. This is a contribution not only to the further development of forestry science and silviculture in Germany, but also of global importance! The goal must be to produce wood through largely natural forest production and to start with it here in Germany, the birthplace of forestry.

Motto: SYSTEMIC FOREST ECOSYSTEM MANAGEMENT INSTEAD OF WOOD FACTORY

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