Berlin — New sightings confirm that wolves are making a rapid comeback across Europe. But the most surprising success story is in Germany, which lacks the infrastructure for wildlife protection despite its strong tradition of environmentalism.
“Germany as a whole is becoming affected by wolves,” says World Wildlife Fund wolf expert Janosch Arnold. “Five years from now we’ll have them in nearly every district.”
Wolves were hunted nearly to extinction in Germany in the 20th century. But over the past decade, they have been making a slow return.
Since the year 2000, when an infrared camera produced the first evidence of their return close to the Polish border, the number of wolf packs in Germany has mushroomed from two to 300.
Their comeback was initially attributed to the emptying of rural areas in what was formerly East Germany.
The wolf packs settling amid wind-energy projects, along well-trodden nature trails and even on Berlin’s doorstep.
Last year, wolves were involved as a herd of frightened horses broke from their paddock and bolted onto the highway.
In the US states where wolves have made comebacks, such incidents have prompted calls from farmers and hunters for relaxing a ban on hunting the wild canines.
That's exposing a rift between the rural residents who must live with wolves and urban environmentalists who love them.
The return of wolves to the forests around Berlin has been met with excitement in the conservationist and scientific community.
Conservationists are concerned that a serious lack of skills and funding would make the reinstatement of controlled hunting problematic.
Even in countries where wolves have always thrived, such as Finland and Norway, hunting licenses are often allotted with little understanding of population dynamics, critics say.
However, the real problem may be not the wolves themselves, but economics.
States compensate livestock owners for losses from attacks with various financial packages and incentives.
But farmers say compensation for slaughtered animals is always slow to arrive. And the funds cover only concrete items such as electric fences or sheepdogs, not the additional labor required for installation or training.
Compounding the problem, many sheep farmers make ends meet with the aid of European Union subsidies for the preservation of grassland ecosystems. They're essentially paid to graze their sheep, which means they must continually move from one pasture to another. The new threat of wolves requires them to also move their fences.
Many of farmers in Germany are prepared to live with wolves, but it is a tough way to learn that the wolf had returned to Germany.