European Commission takes aim at Sweden over wolf hunt

The month-long wolf hunt has divided Sweden - and prompted many European conservationists to accuse Sweden of undue animal cruelty in the name of sport.

Anders Wiklund/Scanpix/Reuters
Henrik Widlund looks out during the wolf hunt in Hasselforsreviret, central Sweden, January 15. Sweden's wolf hunt for the year began on Saturday, with nine wolves out of the allotted annual quota of 20 shot by lunchtime.

The European Commission announced today it is mounting a legal challenge against Sweden for allowing the hunting of wolves for the second year in a row, saying the controversial practice may violate EU law.

Sweden’s Environment Minister Andreas Carlgren responded to the legal threat by saying the country would begin moving wolf pups born in zoos as well as adults wolves from Finland into the wild to strengthen the animal’s dwindling numbers. Carlgren said the introduction of foreign wolves will also help diversify the genetic makeup of the Sweden’s wolf packs.

“We will continue to inform the commission about our work and I am confident that we will be able to dispel the doubts they may have about our wolf policy,” the minister said at a press conference in Stockholm today.

The contentious wolf hunt has divided Sweden, pitting city dwellers against rural Swedes who largely favor or tolerate the hunt. It has also set off a storm of criticism across Europe with many conservationists accusing Sweden of undue animal cruelty in the name of sport.

Some animal rights activists have attempted to thwart hunters by scaring off wolves with firecrackers. In the areas where hunting is allowed, local police have stepped up their patrols given the threats of sabotage by those opposed to the hunt.

Sweden's justification for the hunt

More than 6,700 hunters registered in Sweden for a chance to track and kill the animals during the month-long hunting season that began Jan. 15. Hunters bagged nearly half of the quota before 1 p.m. on the season’s opening day. As of Wednesday night, 18 of the 20 allotted wolves have been shot.

The government says the hunt is necessary to make the practice of introducing foreign wolves, in order to diversify the packs’ narrow genetic makeup, possible and more palatable for the public.

Wolves are kept out of northern Sweden in order to protect the nation’s reindeer herds but the restriction has cut off the packs from mating with other wolves in Finland and Russia. As a result, Sweden’s wolves are severely inbred and are in need of new bloodlines.

Wolf hunting was banned in Sweden 1964 when the animal’s population neared extinction but was reintroduced last year after the Swedish parliament decided to limit the packs’ population to 210 wolves. In 2010, Sweden sanctioned the hunting to 27 wolves, all of which were killed in a four-day span.

Daniel Ligne, deputy game manager for the Swedish Hunters Association, says the hunt is needed to stop inbreeding among the country’s isolated packs. He also brushed aside the Commission’s legal threats, saying the flap with the commissioner is nothing more than a miscommunication.

“The hunt is only to make room for new genes,” says Mr. Ligne, adding that Sweden has extensive records on the existing packs and can tailor the hunt to areas where only inbred wolves are targeted.

Strong reactions against the hunt

But opposition has been fierce. The Swedish Carnivore Association collected roughly 30,000 signatures calling for an end to the hunt on their website. The group along with three other nature conservation groups filed a complaint in March with the EU Environment Commission in hopes of ending the hunt.

Ann Dahlerus, secretary general for the association, says the wolf population is too small and vulnerable and that there is no legal basis to permit the hunt. Besides, she added, many Swedes are against the practice.

“The majority of people in Sweden are in favor of wolves,” she says. “The population needs to grow, period.”

In a statement, the EU Commission said it will “launch a formal infringement procedure” against the Nordic country for permitting the culling of 20 gray wolves this year in central Sweden. If Sweden fails to assuage the commission’s concern, the authority may then refer the case to the European Court of Justice.

The EU’s involvement comes at the behest of European Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik who has voiced reservations about Sweden’s rationale for the hunt. Mr. Potocnik said in an earlier statement he had been in contact with the Swedish government since June but failed to receive adequate answers to his questions.

Europe's protected wolves

Wolves are a legally protected species under the EU’s Habitats Directive, which oversees the conservation and management of Europe’s wildlife and natural habitats.

Potocnik’s spokesman, Joe Hennon, says EU countries are allowed to hunt wolves but only when they threaten livestock or humans.

"What is not permitted is just to shoot wolves,” he says.

Sweden is not the first Nordic country to sanction wolf hunting and incur criticism for doing so. Norway authorized the culling of wolves in 2001 and 2005 – under protests from the Swedish government – saying the population was growing and spreading too fast. Controlled wolf hunting is allowed in northern Finland after the country won an exemption for the practice in 2007.

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