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

by Hannes Öckerman


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.


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”.


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.


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…


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

[2] Protecting individuals considered genetically important


Works cited

Carlgren, A., 2010. En ny trovärdig rovdjurspolitik (New credible politics for predators). The Swedish Government Speeches, Stockholm. URL (accessed 4.29.15).

DN, 2011. Kryddad jakthund ska skydda mot varg. Dagens Nyheter. URL kryddad-jakthund-ska-skydda-mot-varg/ (accessed 3.22.15).

Ericsson, G., Heberlein, T.A., 2003. Attitudes of hunters, locals, and the general public in Sweden now that the wolves are back. Biological Conservation 111, 149–159. doi:10.1016/S0006-3207(02)00258-6.

Franchell, E., 2012. EU har rätt om de svenska vargarna (EU are right about the Swedish wolfs). Aftonbladet, Stockholm.

Gervasi, V., Sand, H., Zimmermann, B., Mattisson, J., Wabakken, P., Linnell, J.D.C., 2013. Decomposing risk: Landscape structure and wolf behavior generate different predation patterns in two sympatric ungulates. Ecological Applications 23, 1722–1734. doi:10.1890/12-1615.1.

Hansen, M.M., Andersen, L.W., Aspi, J., Fredrickson, R., 2011. Evaluation of the conservation genetic basis of management of grey wolves in Sweden (No. SOU 2011:37), Swedish large carnivore inquiry. Statens Offentliga Utredningar (The Swedish Government’s Official Investigations).

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.

Karlsson, J., Sjöström, M., 2007. Human attitudes towards wolves, a matter of distance. Biological Conservation, Forests in the Balance: Linking Tradition and Technology in Lanscape Mosaics 137, 610–616. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2007.03.023.

Laikre, L., 1999. Conservation Genetics of Nordic Carnivores: Lessons from Zoos. Hereditas 130, 203–216. doi:10.1111/j.1601-5223.1999.00203.x.

Laikre, L., Jansson, M., Allendorf, F.W., Jakobsson, S., Ryman, N., 2013. Hunting Effects on Favourable Conservation Status of Highly Inbred Swedish Wolves. Conservation Biology 27, 248–253. doi:

Laikre, L., Ryman, N., Thompson, E.A., 1993. Hereditary Blindness in a Captive Wolf (Canis lupus) Population: Frequency Reduction of a Deleterious Allele in Relation to Gene Conservation. Conservation Biology 7, 592–601.

Liljelund, L.E., 2011. Rovdjurens bevarandestatus – Delbetänkande av Rovdjursutredningen. (Predator conservation status – interim report of the Predator Investigation) (Government Public Investigation No. SOU 2011:37). Swedish Government Public Investigations, Stockholm.

Marris, E., 2013. Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World, Reprint edition. Bloomsbury USA, New York.

Mills, S., 1987. Does Sweden have room for its wolves? Oryx 21, 92–96. doi:10.1017/S0030605300026612.

Nicholson, K.L., Milleret, C., Månsson, J., Sand, H., 2014. Testing the risk of predation hypothesis: the influence of recolonizing wolves on habitat use by moose. Oecologia 176, 69–80. doi:10.1007/s00442-014-3004-9.

Radio Sweden, 2013. Ilskna lamadjur ska skydda mot vargangrepp. URL artikel.aspx?programid=83&artikel=5499418 (accessed 3.22.15).

Sand, H., Gervasi, V., 2014. Vad påverkar predationsrisken för älg och rådjur inom ett vargrevir? (What affects predation on moose and roe deer within wolf territory?) (No. 7/2014), Fakta Skog – Rön från Sveriges lantbruksuniversitet. Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Uppsala.

Stronen, A.V., Brook, R.K., Paquet, P.C., Mclachlan, S., 2007. Farmer attitudes toward wolves: Implications for the role of predators in managing disease. Biological Conservation 135, 1–10. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2006.09.012.

Swedish Government, 2009. Regeringens proposition 2008/09:210. En ny rovdjursförvaltning. (Swedish Government bill 2008/09:2010. A new large carnivore management plan) (No. 2008/09:210). Swedish Government, Stockholm.

Swedish Society for Nature Conservation, 2015. Vargen behöver ditt stöd. URL (accessed 3.16.15).

Swedish Society for Nature Conservation, 2013. Låt vargarna och de andra rovdjuren leva. URL (accessed 3.16.15).

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:


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