The return of the apex predator in Europe*
* Based on the study of Bijl, H & Csányi, S. The reasons for the range expansion of the grey wolf, coyote and red fox. Review on Agriculture and Rural Development 11(1-2), pp 46-53. DOI: https://ojs.bibl.u-szeged.hu/index.php/rard/article/view/44112
Many wildlife species are making a comeback in Europe after being low in numbers or completely absent for a long time.
This is also the case for one of the most iconic species in the world: the grey wolf.
The grey wolf is the second largest predator in Europe (the brown bear being the largest).
They are beloved by many but at the same time, not everyone rejoices in their return due to their predatory nature. The human-carnivore conflict has been a longstanding issue ever since humans lived alongside wildlife.
Therefore, the resurgence of the wolf is being heavily debated among conservationists, hunters, policymakers and many other stakeholders.
But what has made the return of this species successful in the first place?
Where and how many?
Wolves used to be abundant in North America, Europe and Asia and lived in a wide variety of habitats.
Unfortunately, they were driven to the brink of extinction in the 1800s due to persecution and habitat fragmentation which resulted in a 68% reduction in their historical range.
However, in the last few decades, the grey wolf has expanded its permanent range in Central Europe and the Carpathian mountains, the Alps, Scandinavia, Baltics, and the Iberian Peninsula. Resident packs have also been observed in the Netherlands in the past few years.
However, the expansion of a species does not only happen in its range but also in its numbers.
The grey wolf increased by 1800% from the 1960s and there are now estimated to be 17,000 wolves in Europe, according to the Wildlife Comeback Report 2022.
The largest population can be found in the Baltic region (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, northeastern Poland, northern Ukraine, and the western part of Russia), which have an estimated 3700 individuals.
Reasons for expansion
The grey wolf is considered a successful species. This is due to a number of reasons.
First, the enhancement of legal protection.
Although farmers and hunters are not happy with the presence of the apex predator due to the competition with (deer) hunters and the threat they pose to livestock, many nature and animal lovers love the idea of having wolves in the forest.
And after a long absence, this has led to the protection of the species.
The grey wolf is officially a strictly protected species in Europe as it was included in the Bern Convention in 1979.
This means that the species cannot be disturbed (such as hunting and capturing) and special conservation areas need to be established.
Although in some countries exception permits can be allowed for problematic individuals.
Second, grey wolves have benefitted greatly from reintroduction programs in North America. Though they haven’t been reintroduced in European countries.
The most well-known success story is the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone National Park in 1995. Other attempts were made but these were unsuccessful.
Third, grey wolves have naturally colonised areas which is made easier due to their high mobility and adaptable nature.
They can travel large distances up to 900 km, which is one of the longest recorded dispersals for a terrestrial mammal.
Moreover, wolves live in packs which allows cooperation in hunting, pup rearing, and food/territory defence and which also results in higher reproductive success.
Additionally, the species have early first reproduction (from two years old), a high number of offspring (five to six pups per litter), and rapid development (80% of the full body size is achieved by the end of the first year).
All of these traits aid in the expansion of the grey wolf, making them a successful key species.
What does the future hold?
To effectively manage a species, it is essential to look at the ecology of the particular species itself.
Although external factors, like changes in the environment, can alter a species’ distribution as well, this is something we have little control over.
Plus, the spread and increase of the grey wolf population are in different stages in different countries, therefore, it is essential to adopt a flexible and adaptive management approach.
For example, different management strategies and concepts should be applied, depending on the status of the species in a local area.
This can include local killings of problematic individuals, sustainable utilisation, prevention of diseases (e.g., rabies), protection measures for livestock herds, and a management concept that has been developed from a participatory process.
Currently, management is based on reactive responses rather than proactive management and does not look at the root of the issue.
Thus, if we want to mitigate human-carnivore conflicts, tangible and practical actions should be taken, while strengthening the separation between human and wild canids.