Forest Department Graubünden: Wolves improve the health of forests

Except for humans, all natural enemies of the deer and chamois have disappeared in the Swiss forests. The animals have been able to multiply almost uncontrolled. However, since the wolf is back in Switzerland, a fascinating development has been observed:

“Where the wolf is, the forest is healthier.” – Graubünden Forest Deparment

In their newly produced ‘Forest development plan 2018+’ the Swiss canton Graubünden welcomes the wolf. The forestry department clearly states that the wolf has a positive effect on their forests, and actively supports its return.

Original Statement

1.6 Grossraubtiere

Der Wolf, der Luchs und zeitweise auch der Bär sind in den letzten Jahren wieder nach Graubünden eingewandert. Seit 2012 hat sich im Calandagebiet ein Wolfsrudel etabliert, welches regelmässig Nachwuchs zur Welt bringt. Wie sich diese Entwicklung auf die Schalenwildbestände und die damit verbundenen Wildschäden auswirkt, wird untersucht. Aus forstlicher Sicht erhofft man sich, dass die Konzentrationen von Gämse und Hirsch generell abnehmen und der Lebensraum dynamischer genutzt wird.

Beim Luchs zeigen verschiedene Untersuchungen aus der Schweiz und dem restlichen Alpenraum, dass sein Vorkommen einen regulierenden Effekt auf die Wildpopulation hat. Dies wiederum hat in diesen Gebieten positive Auswirkungen auf die Waldverjüngung.

Grossraubtiere sind aus forstlicher Sicht willkommen. Deren Ausbreitung auf noch nicht besetzte Gebiete im Kanton wird begrüsst. Sie können massgeblich zu einer Entlastung der Wildschadensituation beitragen. Dies erfolgt nicht nur durch eine rein zahlenmässige Abschöpfung der Bestände, sondern auch mit einem wesentlichen Einfluss auf die Wildverteilung, welcher sich günstig auf den Wald auswirken kann. Dabei muss der ordentliche Jagddruck erhalten bleiben, um den erwarteten positiven Aspekt der Grossraubtiere zu erreichen. Bei einer Reduktion des Jagddrucks wäre dieser Effekt gehemmt.

Restore the protective forests

About 60% of the forests in Graubünden are so-called protective forests. Meaning that the trees provide a natural protection against rockfalls, landslides and avalanches, by supporting and securing the upper soil layer on mountain slopes. To function properly, the forest needs young, strong and healthy trees. Yet, 21% of the protective forests are coping with serious rejuvenation problems.

“We are dealing with conditions that can not be tolerated in the long term. The protective function of the forests could be permanently disrupted.” Reto Hefti, regional forestry official

The rejuvenation problem means simply that there are not enough new young trees growing in the forests. The cause for that is the overgrazing and debarking of young trees by ungulates, especially roe deer, red deer and chamois. The more of these animals live in the forests, the more they damage young trees permanently and destroyed them. The number of ungulates in Switzerland is incredibly high, because all natural enemies have disappeared and deer numbers grew almost uncontrolled. Now that the wolf has returned, the forest show an interesting development: wherever the wolf is, the forest becomes healthier.

How do wolves lead to healthy forests?

The wolf is an apex predator, a crucial component for a healthy ecosystem. Even in low numbers, their effect on the overpopulation of ungulates is noticeable. Less herbivores lower the pressure on the vegetation. But not only the direct impact by wildlife depredation is important. The indirect behavioural change of deer and chamois, due to the wolf’s presence, leads to increased movement through and avoidance of certain areas in the forest. This enables the vegetation to regenerate better, preventing soil erosion and destabilisation. The most famous Swiss wolf pack is the Calanda pack in Graubünden. It lives close to the city Chur, (Pop:33.000)  between highways, train tracks and numerous villages. In this area, people already see the results.

“The number of young fir aged 2-5 years strongly increased.” – Mattiu Cathomen, regional forestry official

Wolves are forest and ecosystem engineers

The Swiss forests clearly benefit from the returning wolf. And that is not the only impact on the local ecosystems. We published an educational poster recently on how ‘Wolves restore nature’s balance in Europe‘. It will take a few more years before we can see more examples of healthier forests if the wolf returns elsewhere. But one thing is clear: the wolf is good for the state of the forests.

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3 thoughts on “Forest Department Graubünden: Wolves improve the health of forests

  1. Dear Louise, you can find the document in the Issuu attached to this article.
    Wild regards,

  2. do you have a source for the “Forest development plan 2018+”? I cannot find it online.

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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.


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