Living with wolves and bears: Addressing conflicts arising from coexistence of people and large carnivores

10 June 2014 | News story

IUCN welcomes today’s launch of the EU Platform on Coexistence between People and Large Carnivores. These species, such as wolves and bears, have made a remarkable recovery across the EU, but coexistence with man can be problematic. The Platform was set up by the European Commission to facilitate constructive dialogue among key stakeholders including farmers, conservationists, landowners and hunters, and it aims at finding commonly agreed solutions to conflicts arising from people living and working in close proximity to these large animals.

“As one of the Platform’s members, we look forward to playing our part in the Commission’s initiative to foster a positive dialogue,” said Luc Bas, Director of the IUCN EU Representative Office. “IUCN’s own network of members and experts represents a broad spectrum of interests in this field, from scientific institutions to environmental NGOs, from hunters to governments, and thus finding common ground is in our DNA.”

The Platform will cover four species of large carnivore present in the European Union, including the brown bear, the wolf, the wolverine and the Eurasian lynx. Historically, large carnivores had seen their numbers and distribution decline dramatically, mainly as a consequence of human activity.

However, in the last few decades, these animals have made a dramatic recovery across Europe and numbers have now reached around 40,000, with most of the populations stable or increasing. This is mainly due to favourable national and international legislation such as the EU Habitats Directive, adopted some 20 years ago, which protects the European large carnivore species to varying degrees and provides a basis for harmonisation of national legislation. This Directive has resulted in large carnivores’ return to many areas from which they had been absent for decades and to reinforce their presence where they already occurred. As many as 21 EU countries are now home to at least one of these species.

Although this is considered a great conservation success, such increases in species numbers have also caused some conflicts with local people and stakeholders who share the same landscape in some areas of Europe, notably farmers and hunters. Because of their predatory habits large carnivores need very large areas (individuals ranging over areas as large as 100-2,000 km²) and their conservation needs to be planned on very wide spatial scales which span many intra- and international administrative and jurisdictional borders.

“The recovery of large carnivores in Europe can be considered a great conservation success, but it also causes controversy which needs to be addressed,” said Luigi Boitani, Chairman of the Large Carnivore Initiative for Europe (LCIE), a Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission. “We have already seen many positive examples of coexistence with these animals, but further dialogue is needed. After all, there is no conservation without conversation.”

"We need to treat our natural neighbours with respect – but we also need to heed the concerns of those whose lives are genuinely affected by their close proximity. My warm congratulations to the organisations that have worked together to set up this important platform, which represents a major step forward in efforts to address the issue of peaceful coexistence," said Janez Potocnik, EU Environment Commissioner.

The presence of large carnivores in areas where humans live, work and recreate is often associated with a variety of conflicts, such as depredation on livestock (and semi-domestic reindeer in Scandinavia), interaction with hunters, as well as social and cultural conflicts related to broader tensions between rural and urban areas.

Measures to address these different conflicts vary greatly, ranging from traditional shepherding methods to modern electronic fencing. However, due to the prolonged absence of large carnivores, readopting the former practices can be a major challenge for social, cultural, economic and logistical reasons. While experience from many sites shows that it is possible to adapt livestock husbandry to the presence of large carnivores, this requires willingness to change, as well as technical assistance and economic support.

Due to the diversity of European situations and landscapes there are no management approaches that work in all contexts. Reintegrating large carnivores into the fabric of the European countryside therefore requires making a number of adjustments to practices of many sectors.

Equally, experience has shown that social and cultural conflicts can be successfully addressed by promoting dialogue between the various stakeholders involved in the issue.

Status of Large Carnivores in Europe

Brown bear
In Europe, brown bears occur in 22 countries, and the estimated total number of brown bears in Europe seems to be in the range of 17’000 individuals. In the EU, bear populations are strictly protected under the EU Habitats Directive, but some countries use derogation to allow a limited cull of bears. The smallest bear populations are still critically endangered.

Wolf
In Europe, breeding populations of wolves occur in all countries except in the Benelux countries, Denmark, Hungary and the island states, although even Denmark has recently had several individual wolves establishing within its borders. The estimated total number of wolves in Europe seems to be larger than 10,000 individuals. The legal status of wolves in the European Union under the Habitats Directive varies from country to country, and some countries have differentiated management within their borders. As a result some populations are exposed to regulated hunting while others are strictly protected. Numerous conflicts occur with wolves and livestock across the whole species range.

Eurasian lynx
Eurasian lynx are found in 23 countries, in northern and eastern Europe (Scandinavian and Baltic states) and along forested mountain ranges in southeastern and central Europe. Half of the populations are autochthonous, while the other half stem from reintroductions in the 1970s and 1980s. There have also been some more recent re-introductions, for example in Germany, Austria and Poland. The total number of lynx in Europe is 9000-10’000 individuals. In the EU, (with the exception of Estonia where lynx are managed as a game species), lynx populations are strictly protected under the EU Habitats Directive), but some countries currently use derogations to allow a limited cull of lynx by hunters.

Wolverine
Wolverines are found in four European counties in Europe: Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia. The Scandinavian population consists of about 1,100 individuals. In the EU, wolverines are strictly protected under pan-European legislation (the Habitats Directive). The main conflicts occur due to wolverine depredation on semi-domestic reindeer, as well as domestic sheep (in Norway). The main threats to European wolverines are over-harvest and poaching, although there are concerns about potential impacts of climate change.

For more information, see European Commission: Status, management and distribution of large carnivores – bear, lynx, wolf & wolverine – in Europe