Archive for May, 2014



14/05/2014

Wolves on Dutch doorstep: European law and the return of a controversial carnivore

By Arie Trouwborst (TLS)

In April 2014 automatic wildlife cameras in two German areas just across the Dutch border caught pictures showing an animal with all the looks of a wolf (Canis lupus). DNA found in wolf-like scat from the area is being analyzed to know for sure. If in future the presence of this or another wolf can be reliably established on the Dutch side of the border this would be quite an event, as the last fully confirmed sighting of a wild wolf in the Netherlands dates back to 1845. The words ‘fully confirmed’ are justified because that animal was shot dead. Whereas wolves used to occupy most of Europe, they gradually disappeared from their former ranges, chiefly because of a lack of human tolerance for their presence. The species hung on in the east of the continent, and in isolated populations in Spain and Italy. In most European countries, wolves remained only in (fairy) tales.

Canis lupus in the Lüneburg Heath wildlife park, Germany (source: Wikimedia, user Quartl)

Canis lupus in the Lüneburg Heath wildlife park, Germany (source: Wikimedia, user Quartl)

But things are changing. Recent decades have seen a steep increase of wolves across Europe, both in terms of their numbers and the places where they occur. For instance, France and Germany – both wolf-less for many years – are now home to swiftly expanding wolf populations. These follow spontaneous re-colonizations in, respectively, Italy and Poland. Wolves travel impressive distances and the establishment of new packs has been steadily progressing westwards. The last few years have even yielded reliable records of the first wolves reappearing in Belgium and Denmark. The scene thus appears set for a natural return of wolves, whether from the German or French population or both, to the Netherlands. This would be a milestone indeed, as Holland is probably the last place on people’s minds when thinking of wolves. Already in 2011, and again in 2013, several tentative wolf sightings occurred in the east of the Netherlands, and in the spring of 2013 a wolf was camera-trapped just across the border in Germany, in the same area where one of this year’s wolf pictures was taken.

All of this is good news from a biodiversity conservation perspective, for at least two reasons. First, most big predator species worldwide are threatened and in decline. Second, large carnivores are of crucial importance for the proper functioning of ecosystems. Both aspects were emphasized in a recent review article on large carnivores in the journal Science. At the same time, the European wolf comeback comes with significant challenges that must be met in order to prolong the success story. In particular, conflict between humans and wolves has been a consistent theme throughout history. Wolves were exterminated for a reason! Such conflicts spring, among other things, from livestock depredation, human safety concerns and competition for the same prey with hunters. The animals tend to stir up controversy particularly when they reappear in regions and countries from which they disappeared long ago, and where people are no longer used, or willing, to live alongside them. Finding examples of such conflicts is easy, as the media tend to be eager to cover them – sometimes a little too eager, it seems. The Netherlands is a case in point as well, as the mere possibility of wolves returning to the country has been giving rise to significant debate in recent years, both in the media and in Parliament.

So why raise all of this in a law blog? To begin with, law played its part in the wolves’ demise. A representative example is the 19th century Dutch hunting act, ‘Jagt- en visscherijwet 1814’, which set a bounty to be collected for every dead wolf: 30 guilders (approximately 500 present day euros) for a female, 25 (~400 euro) for a male, and 15 (~250 euro) for each young wolf. Conversely, legal protection is often mentioned as one of the factors enabling the comeback of wolves since the 1970s, along with land use changes and increases in forest cover and wild prey populations. At the same time, law is of the essence for ensuring that the wolf’s recolonization of its former habitat takes place as smoothly as possible, particularly by minimizing and resolving human-wolf conflicts. Finally, in view of the fact that almost all current European wolf populations extend across more than one country, a particularly prominent role is reserved for international cooperation. Two significant legal instruments in this regard are the 1979 Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats (Bern Convention) and the 1992 EU Directive on the Conservation of Natural Habitats and of Wild Fauna and Flora (Habitats Directive). Both instruments contain important obligations regarding the protection of wolves and their habitat. Moreover, specific guidance for the application of these obligations to wolves and other large carnivores has been developed within the framework of both instruments by a dedicated group of experts called the Large Carnivore Initiative for Europe (LCIE).

Returning to the Netherlands, the Dutch government recently announced it will list the wolf as a strictly protected species under Dutch law, motivating this decision with reference to the Netherlands’ obligations under the Habitats Directive. Other steps undertaken by the Dutch authorities to prepare themselves and society at large for the wolf’s expected comeback include a fact-finding study, opinion poll, assessment of experiences in other countries and workshops involving all stakeholders ranging from conservationists to sheep farmers. The authorities also commissioned a legal study to assess the viability of various policy options regarding the management of wolves should they return to the Dutch landscape, and answer other legal questions raised by this anticipated return. Some examples are the following:

  • What is the (inter)national legal status of wolves returning to the Netherlands?
  • What can be done about wolves preying on livestock?
  • Is a zoning policy of ‘go and no-go areas’ for wolves a legally viable option?
  • At what stage of re-colonization are protected areas to be designated for wolves?
  • What is the position of wolf-dog hybrids and of measures to counter hybridization?
  • What role is reserved for transboundary cooperation?

The whole process culminated in the development of a blueprint for a national Wolf Plan [PDF], which was commissioned by the Ministry of Economic Affairs (the national authority currently dealing with wildlife conservation). The blueprint, which was finalized in October 2013, is the result of a participatory process involving national and provincial governmental bodies, protected area managers, NGOs, livestock farmers’ organizations, hunting associations and academics from various disciplines. The document sets out guidelines regarding information and communication, monitoring and research and the prevention and compensation of damages to livestock. It also includes a discussion of the applicable legislative framework for wolves, including the species’ generic protection through various prohibitions, the designation of protected areas and transboundary cooperation with neighboring states. The recent express designation of the wolf as a strictly protected species under Dutch law was one of the actions recommended in the blueprint, but it remains to be seen to what degree its other components will be transformed into actual government policy. At any rate, a feature that stands out is the proactive manner in which the entire process has been conducted, in the absence thus far of the protagonist species itself. The Dutch experience to date appears to affirm the intuitive notion that it is easiest to reach a level of agreement amongst stakeholders with conflicting views on wolves before the animals themselves arrive on the scene.

As just concisely illustrated, large carnivores like wolves not only constitute one of the hottest topics in the area of European wildlife conservation and management today, but also a rich topic for legal analysis. This post has done little more than introducing the topic and scratching the surface, and Canis lupus and other big predators like bears and lynx may well be revisited in future pieces.

- Arie Trouwborst

Selected further reading:

Tilburg Law School’s Kees Bastmeijer and Arie Trouwborst are the principal authors of the legal study mentioned above, and also assisted in the drafting of the Wolf Plan blueprint. They authored various scientific journal articles on legal issues concerning large carnivore conservation and management. Arie Trouwborst is a member of the Large Carnivore Initiative for Europe.

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