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Bears, wolves, lynx – Europe is going wild

Europe, the world’s most industrialised and intensively managed continent, is going wild. During the past three decades it has witnessed conservation successes with the most unexpected species: Europe…

Duran, Duran, anyone? Dawn Villella/AP

Europe, the world’s most industrialised and intensively managed continent, is going wild. During the past three decades it has witnessed conservation successes with the most unexpected species: Europe today hosts 17,000 bears, 11,000 wolves and 9,000 lynx. Wolves are spreading in France and Germany and into the Netherlands and Denmark. There have not been so many wolves in Sweden since the 1800s.

To understand what lies behind this surprising comeback, take a look at to what extent it has been brought deliberately. Is it from massive, successful reintroduction programs? Have large wilderness areas free from human influence been secured to host these abundant predator populations? The answer is as bewildering as the creatures comeback: humans have been passive witnesses to these predators' return, not the actors behind it.

A combination of European regulations such as the Bern Convention and Habitats Directive, secure land tenure, rural populations moving to cities, abundant populations of wild prey and a public opinion that favours environment protection have created a breeding ground for predators to naturally re-colonise their historical ranges.

This has brought its own problems – it would be grossly misleading to portray their return idealistically. Any change, be it ecological, social or economical, disturbs current practices, requires adaptations and can be met by fierce resistance. The return of wolves, bears and lynxes is no exception. They compete for wild prey with hunters, can attack domestic animals, may threaten human safety and, regardless of anything else, just make people uneasy that there is something with big claws out there in the woods, which was once only on television.

However, most of the controversies associated with these predators may be less about the animals and more about conflicts between people about land use. The predators' return raises controversial questions and are a powerful symbol to communicate one’s difficulties.

For example, French sheep farmers claim that wolf attacks threaten their traditional livelihoods. Actually, the most effective sheep predator is not the wolf (sheep farming is in a worse state in wolf free regions) but the French secret services. After French special forces sank Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior in New Zealand in 1985, the French government could no longer oppose opening the European market to the economically competitive New Zealand lamb and French sheep farming could barely only be kept afloat by massive subsidies.

Environmentalists have questioned whether sheep farming should be granted an above-the-market status not afforded to many other industries and trades, which are forced to close when no longer competitive. Besides, sheep farming in Mercantour National Park where the wolves first came back only dates back 50 years or so to when they replaced cattle. For some, this can hardly be considered a “tradition” unless one sees subsidised overgrazing of hillsides as a traditional activity to underpin a regional cultural landscape. The wolf, therefore, has become the perfect scapegoat for national and local politicians to pretend they are helping struggling farmers by asking for wolf removals – despite those same politicians having created the conditions for farmers' problems.

Interestingly, the return of large predators in Europe has coincided with the idea of “rewilding” in the continent, and the spreading of what I would call BYTE or the “Bringing Yellowstone To Europe” syndrome. It is tempting to associate large predators with a romantic vision of wilderness, with few if any human activities, and to strive to create such large areas to restore some sort of ecological balance and function. But predators are returning to places that are already well populated by humans – they do not require wilderness to thrive.

Rewilding projects might have a role particularly in specific regions where natural recolonisation is impossible, such as Scotland. But rewilding rhetoric needs to be particularly careful in not putting predators above people and triggering a backfire against biodiversity conservation in general.

In my opinion, the future of large predators like bears, wolves and lynx in today’s Europe lies, not in efforts to restore a state of socially constructed wilderness in restricted areas, but instead in slowly closing the historical bracket of extinction by allowing large predators to become part again of the range of common animals found across Europe.

Specific and tailored-made approaches are required to help secure a co-existence between people and predators: hunters value bears for trophies in Croatia, farmers tolerate wolf predation on horses in North West Spain, Polish foresters regard wolves as allies that limit damages from deers, boars and other prey, and reindeer herders in Northern Sweden are paid for each wolverine reproduction on their land.

The message is that there is no silver bullet to conserve and manage predators. Europe is a very diverse continent and forging a new relationship with predators – one no longer based on hate or love but instead coexistence – requires watching, learning, and adapting to a new situation.