Friday, January 9, 2015

Wolves in Norway

Monbiot blog : A pack of Timber Wolves (wolf) wandering in snowy birch forest of  Norway
Source: The Guardian

Something I've noticed while writing these posts is that people in first world countries are often oddly unaccepting of non-lethal human-wildlife conflict mitigation plans. This is especially true if they're focused on predators. Often the preferred solution is lethal control, with an active refusal of non-lethal methods, as can be learned by the frequent culling of animals such as wolves, bears, and coyotes throughout many countries. This post will focus on wolves in Norway, which are kept at artificially low numbers through culling, due to local fear and perceived threat to livestock.

The Wolves:

The sub-species of wolf found in Norway is the Eurasian Wolf (Canis lupus lupus), though in reality very few can be found there at all. They're very social animals, living in packs, each with an alpha (breeding) male and female. They have the largest range of any wolf sub-species and are carnivores, eating mostly medium sized ungulates; though they're known to eat prey as small as frogs. When all else fails, they can also be found scavenging food from dumps near slaughterhouses. 

Source: Large Herbivore Network
Wolves are a keystone species, meaning that they play a leading role in how an ecosystem functions. In the case of wolves, they prey on grazers, which would otherwise overgraze and destroy habitat for other animals, as well as provide food for scavengers and other species with the remains of their kills. By all accounts, where wolves are native, their presence keeps the ecosystem balanced and functioning.

They're listed as Critically Endangered on the Norwegian Red List (though are considered Least Concern in many other countries). This wasn't always the case. Historically large numbers of wolves roamed the entirety of Scandinavia, though by 1960 they were considered "functionally extinct." Why? Human persecution, as with wolves in much of the rest of the world. Norway actually paid hunters to kill them. A single breeding pack was discovered in Norway in 1983, which were thought to have come from Finland or Russia. This population grew until culling began, which continues unimpeded till this day. By 2003 organized culling was in effect; in 2005 they eradicated 5 of the only 21 wolves in the country. Since then, their policy has been to preserve three breeding pairs, and no more- which they are sticking to precisely. Currently there are exactly three packs within Norway, and a further five that straddle the border with Sweden. Wolves are also restricted to a very tiny portion of the country; outside of which, as far as I can tell, they're fair game for hunters:

In the beginning of every hunting season there are about 50; by the end roughly 20 wolves remain. Migration from Sweden is thought to be one of the reasons the population hasn't completely collapsed. 

The Problem (for the wolves):


(I will be updating this section with statistics and other numbers as I find them. The biggest problem I'm having is that I can find no official documentation regarding the compensation programs, culling program, or reliable numbers regarding wolf kills. Some of the articles linked throughout suggest this is because the farmers have a vested interest in inflating numbers of wolf kills, to both get more money and further the extermination of wolves. As a result, research papers, articles, and other sources report numbers that are vastly different, not allowing us to view the problem without bias.)

In short, farmers dislike wolves because of the perceived danger to their livestock, and most refuse to implement non-lethal control, so they're fighting to get them eradicated.

Of course, there's more to the story. Wolves do in fact kill livestock. Roughly 2 million sheep are released to graze unsupervised in the forests and mountains of Norway every year. It is estimated that over 120,000 of these go missing, of which less than 2% are victims of wolves. In fact other predators are a much bigger problem. Wolverines in 2007 are  thought to have killed over 10,000 sheep, whereas that year wolves killed only 380. Other figures cited for the number of sheep killed by wolves hover around 1,500-1,800. The figures reported by the farmers themselves are supposedly higher, though I can't find reliable ones. In fact, most reports appear to confuse the number of deaths caused by wolves, and those from all predators combined, meaning that the numbers cited above could be inflated.

Wolf 5118
Source: Nordic Wildlife
In light of these very low numbers, it's hard to figure out exactly what the problem is. If so many more sheep are killed by things other than wolves, wouldn't it make more sense to deal with those larger, looming problems? Approximately 100,000 sheep per year die from things like falling into crevasses and being hit by trains. Further, humans are at no risk from wolves in Norway. Only one person has ever been killed by a wolf in Norway, and that happened in 1800. Throughout articles and reports there is a lot of implication of how dangerous wolves are, but actual attacks are nowhere to be found, the only victims are livestock left unattended

Wolf (Canis lupus) photographed under controlled conditions in an enclosure. Wolf numbers have been dramatically reduced in many parts of the world by hunting and persecution. Photo: Kim Abel,

Part of the problem might be the mitigation tactics themselves. Aside from the cull there is a generous compensation scheme for farmers that lose livestock to predators. Some argue that these compensation schemes themselves are a problem. They could be so profitable farmers deliberately leave livestock unattended. This is entirely possible, though without being inside their heads we cannot know for sure. A research paper from 2005 supports this  speculation, stating that compensation schemes lead to a decrease in damage prevention and exacerbate conflict. They can further encourage more livestock production, acting as a subsidy.

Whatever the case may be, judging from the numbers, it does appear that Norwegian farmers have a vendetta against wolves that is not rooted in fact, but rather fear and hate. If anything, the culling program could serve to reinforce these fears by making the farmers feel justified.

The (other) Solutions

So far, Norway appears to not want a solution to their conflict other than killing wolves. Supposedly they promote measures other than killing and compensation, but when I look for them I find nothing about them currently being used. So, let's take a look at what more forward-thinking countries are doing to deal with their human-wolf conflict:

1. Enclosures: The simplest and most straightforward way to protect livestock is to put them in enclosures, specifically at night. Wire-mesh and electric fences are used throughout North America, Asia, and Europe with success. 

2. Livestock guard dogs: This is exactly what herding dogs are meant for, and  they're used with great success all over Europe. These dogs will stay with the herd and protect it from predators. 

3. Increased human presence: Instead of allowing sheep to graze alone, having a human herder, instead of, or in addition to, a herding dog will discourage wolves from coming near.

These would all be very easy to implement, especially for a country with so many resources. Hopefully the future of Norway's wolves will be brighter than it is now, if they can manage to survive long enough to get there.

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