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Keeping the Wild at Distance – The Reestablishment of a Swedish Wolf Population Polarizing Society

by Hannes Öckerman

Introduction

Previously locally extinct, the wolf has reestablished itself in Sweden in the past decades. Had this species been a bumblebee or a fungus, it would probably not have been given much attention. However, being top predator surrounded with much controversy, the wolf has caused a polarized society and an eye-opener to how we must reconcile with each other and the wild regarding restoration issues.

Background

Hunted to extinction (Laikre et al., 2013), wolves were absent in Sweden[1] for about a century prior to their natural recolonization in the beginning of the 1980s (Wikenros et al., 2010). They established themselves in the southwestern parts of Sweden making them geographically isolated from the Eurasian population (Ericsson and Heberlein, 2003). Descending from only five founders, individuals of the Swedish wolf population are on average more related to each other than siblings (Laikre et al., 2013). This raises deep ecological and biological concerns addressing the dangers of genetic isolation and inbreeding (Laikre, 1999; Laikre et al., 1993).

Considered a native species, the majority of the Swedish population is positive to the right of wolves to exist within the nation’s borders (Swedish Society for Nature Conservation, 2015). There is discrepancy, however, to what extent. Appointed by the Swedish government, the Predators Commission concluded in 2009 that a viable population should consist of at least 450 individuals (Swedish Society for Nature Conservation, 2013; Liljelund, 2011) in order to significantly reduce its inbreeding (Laikre et al., 2013). On the contrary, the government adopted a policy to keep numbers below 210 (Swedish Government, 2009, p. 210), possibly influenced by the interests of hunters and farmers (Franchell, 2012). Thus, Swedish authorities have permitted ‘selective culling’[2] of wolfs since 2010 (Carlgren, 2010) despite being a protected endangered species. The wolf hunts have been juridically controversial, potentially breaching both national and European legislation (Laikre et al., 2013).

The polarization of society

The attitude differences regarding wolf restoration can also been seen in other parts of society. As Ericsson and Heberlein (2003, p. 150) put it, “The wolf has become the symbol for the divide between urban and rural [people]”. Farmers have a more negative attitude towards wolves (Stronen et al., 2007) and studies have concluded a positive correlation between attitude and distance to a wolf territory (Ericsson and Heberlein, 2003; Karlsson and Sjöström, 2007). So while some conservationists may wish to rewild Sweden back to a 19th century baseline, with wolves present throughout the entire country, I believe this desire comes with a reservation of the wolf not showing up in one’s backyard.

Hunters have raised concerns about the wolf’s impact on game populations of moose and roe deer but it has proven to be minor in comparison to that of humans (Nicholson et al., 2014; Sand and Gervasi, 2014; Gervasi et al., 2013). Moreover, competition with other native predators such as lynx is low (Wikenros et al., 2010). A recent increase in sheep and dogs killed by wolfs is observed though (Karlsson et al., 2014) and these direct negative experiences are likely to breed more unfavorable attitudes towards the canine predator (Karlsson and Sjöström, 2007). As these attitudes probably contributed towards the authorities’ decision to hunt wolf (Franchell, 2012), one must ask: are they justified? Should farmers accept some loss of livestock to benefit an endangered species? Can it be considered a risk one takes, just like losing sheep from theft, accidents or diseases? According to Mills (1987, p. 95), “Careless husbandry is the problem, not wolves”.

Reconciliation

As some loss of livestock and competition for game animals probably is inevitable, there are measures that could be taken towards reconciliation between farmers, hunters and conservationists, between urban and rural people. Most likely, farmers and hunters will have to adapt to wolves repopulating the country. Consequently, it is important to present alternative husbandry solutions such as existing subsidies for preventive actions (Karlsson et al., 2014), lamas to protect sheep herds (Radio Sweden, 2013) and protection vests for hunting dogs (DN, 2011). Meanwhile, conservationists should move away from historical baselines and aim for achievable goals. These could include improving the connectivity in the landscape in order to increase the gene flow and reestablish a larger metapopulation across Scandinavia, Finland and Russia (Laikre et al., 2013; Hansen et al., 2011).

Ethical considerations

As a privileged nation I believe we have an ethical responsibility in restoring the Swedish wolf. Once having disrupted the ecosystem, I argue that humans should not prevent what in many ways is a natural recolonization of a native species. Furthermore, if we were to accept systematic hunting of wolf despite being an endangered species, there is a risk of knock-on effects with other conservationist values being questioned. The whole concept of protecting endangered species could be queried.

Conclusion

As emphasized by Marris (2013), the restoration of a top predator is usually problematic. In Sweden it has caused a polarized society with disagreements on a sustainable wolf population size. The current situation with wolf hunts, however, hinders the mitigation efforts on inbreeding and threatens the concept of protecting endangered species. Therefore, I conclude that society and authorities need to unite behind the restoration of a genetically viable wolf population, based on scientific research and embedded in reconciliation efforts. But then again, what do I know? I live hundreds of kilometers away from the closest wolf territory…

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[1] With the exception of single wolves occasionally wandering in from Finland or Russia.

[2] Protecting individuals considered genetically important

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Works cited

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Karlsson, J., Kjellberg, L., Månsson, J., Svensson, L., Hensel, H., Levin, M., 2014. Statistics of Wildlife Damages 2013 – Damages of inviolable game to domestic animals, dogs and crop (No. 2014-1). Institution of Ecology, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Uppsala.

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Wikenros, C., Liberg, O., Sand, H., Andren, H., 2010. Competition between recolonizing wolves and resident lynx in Sweden. Canadian Journal of Zoology/Revue Canadienne de Zoologie 88, 271–279. doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy.its.uu.se/10.1139/Z09-143.

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