Large predators are symbols of Wilderness in Europe as well

Several arguments are dealing with large predators from time to time. Why are these symbols of Wilderness considered critically important in maintaining the integrity of ecosystems and so are critically important for Wilderness? First of all, ecological interactions are initiated by top predators. Secondly, wide-ranging predators usually require large cores of protected landscapes for foraging and seasonal movements. Thirdly, connectivity is required, because core reserves are typically not large enough to maintain sustainable viable predators’ populations.

Wolf, Bear, Lynx, Wolverine and Wilderness

If we kill off wolves and other symbols of Wilderness, we’ll lose not only the prominent species, but also the key to ecological and evolutionary process of top-down regulation. Large carnivores are essential for landscape-level ecological restoration as well, for the restoration of other highly interactive species and the dynamics of natural processes, such as fire and flood. These are all critically important elements of Wilderness.

If native large carnivores are forced from their region, their reintroduction and recovery should be the core element of the local Wilderness conservation strategy. Wolves, lynx, brown bears, otters and other top carnivores are already restored in many corners of Europe, where a suitable habitat remains or can be restored for them. Obviously, large areas of Europe have been modified by humans widely and support such large human populations and intensive agriculture or forestry, that their reintroduction and recovery is not always feasible. Nevertheless, without the goal of reintroduction and recovery of large predators, we are closing our eyes to the fact what Wilderness really means and demands. Several wildlife biologists believe that “Wilderness without animals (and particularly predators) is dead – dead scenery. Animals without Wilderness are a closed book.”

No Safari

However we should make clear that Wilderness doesn’t always mean a ‘safari’. Lack of animal visibility doesn’t mean poor Wilderness and low conservation value, but too easy visibility of animals and particularly carnivores can actually be a sign that something isn’t going well. From the visitor´s perspective it’s obviously a top experience to see the symbols of Wilderness. What can be more exciting than to see wolves or bears roaming freely in the wild nature? Nevertheless, too much observation, too much ‘peaceful’ interaction between animals and humans is changing the behaviour of carnivores (and not only carnivores) and their level of awareness with many negative consequences.

The ‘no hunting’ policy in many protected areas often ends up with reducing the escaping distance of many animals, particularly large herbivores. Herbivores have already learnt how to use human presence as an advantage, and they protect themselves from being prey for carnivores. The result is that grazing herbivores can be found very close to villages, roads and recreation centres. So observing grazing animals along the road, very often directly from the vehicle, is not an artificial natural experience any more, it is obviously a big attraction for visitors, but unhealthy for the animals.

Great social-economical biodiversity value

Wilderness has a great social-economical biodiversity value. We Europeans started to explore and appreciate this part of the European natural heritage only in the past few years. Public support and interest are extremely important to promote this momentum. However we should be aware that inappropriate management of these last remnants of European Wilderness areas can damage them. For example replacing extractive uses such as hunting, logging or grazing by commercial ‘safaris’ will not only affect the behaviour of animals badly, but has nothing to do with the Wilderness concept.

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3 thoughts on “Large predators are symbols of Wilderness in Europe as well

  1. We all know that re-introduction is expensive and fraught with difficulties. The most important thing we can do to aid any type of re-introduction is to protect large swaths of habitat.

  2. Hi Alexander,
    Reintroduction is acutually happening in central europe, even though it does have mixed success. And yes migratory reintroduction is still reintroduction. Consider Germany where the 180 Wolves migrated from Poland and are now banning their way into central germany and even Austria. I just returned from Spain where the new Wolf corridor from Switzerland through France to Spain has led to an automatic migratory excahnge between the populations. We were just yesterday contacted by our Italien colleagues concerning their effort to establish a Wolf Corridor through Austria. This corridor will lead to some of the wolves returning to their old hunting grounds in the alps. Now technically it is a natural reintroduction without the direct involvement of scientiest, but it still means that carnivores are returning home…

  3. Thanks Zoltan for the interesting article! I agree with many points but have doubts about your last statement. Safaris happen in many forms, only some of which affect animal behaviour (the same is true for hunting or recreational activities) but safaris rarely “replace extractive use”: Both refer to different numbers and groups of local people.
    Other comment: In Central Europe, reintroduction of large carnivores is largely limited to lynx, as far as I know. A WWF project from the late 1980s in Austria reintroducing brown bears eventually failed some years ago, after the new small population disappeared one by one (suspect: in secret trophy collections). The same strange disappearing of all three male lynx is currently an issue in the Kalkalpen NP in Upper Austria. Otters are top targets of fish pond owners. So, its more natural migration that leads to repopulation of old territories, as can be regularly observed for brown bears and wolves, but reality is: Hunters do not want competitors in their territories (for which they pay a lot of money).

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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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