Sweden’s government has said it aims to carry out a significant wolf cull this year, potentially reducing the current population of about 400 animals by as much as half in a move that could breach EU directives.
“We see that the wolf population is growing every year and with this cull, we want to ensure that we can get down to the goal set by parliament,” Anna-Caren Sätherberg, the Swedish rural affairs minister, told the public broadcaster SVT.
“We can see that the level of conflict has increased, and that the level of acceptance has fallen,” Sätherberg said, adding that the government had asked the state environmental protection agency to look again at the right size for the population.
The agency had previously estimated that wolf numbers in Sweden should not fall below about 300, strengthened regularly by new arrivals from outside the country, if the population was to remain viable and not be weakened by inbreeding.
A majority in the Swedish parliament is in favour of cutting the wolf population to 170 individuals, at the very bottom of the 170 to 270 range that would allow the country to meet the conservation requirements of the EU’s species and habitats directive.
Wolf numbers fell in Sweden after a 1789 law allowing commoners to hunt decimated the deer and moose populations, prompting wolves to prey more on livestock. They had vanished from the south by the mid-1800s and were believed to be extinct a century later.
In the 1980s, however, three wolves from the Russian-Finnish population migrated to southern Sweden, founding a new Swedish-Norwegian population now estimated at about 480 animals in 40-odd packs, the vast majority of them in central Sweden.
Sätherberg did not say how big she thought the wolf population should be, but added that while Sweden must meet its EU obligations on protecting endangered species, she also supported people “who live where wolves are, who feel social anxiety, and those who have livestock and have been affected”.
Conservation groups have said a population of 300 is the bare minimum and argue that Sweden’s habitat could easily support a population of 1,000. They accuse the government of bowing to the country’s powerful hunting lobby, which argues that wolves prey on moose and are a danger to hunters’ dogs.
Benny Gäfwert, a predator expert at the WWF, said the organisation was opposed to a major cull and parliament’s figure of 170 was “not based on any scientific facts”.
“Unforeseen things can happen in wild populations and a level of 170 is far too low,” he told SVT. “We have a problem when it comes to the genetics of wolves, and the smaller the wolf population, the greater the impact of fluctuations in genetic status.”
A Green MP, Maria Gardfjell, warned that cutting the population to 170 would be illegal. “It would violate EU legislation on biodiversity and could lead to Sweden being taken to court by the EU,” she told Swedish radio.