It has long been known that wolves are highly adaptable species. The return of breeding wolves to Germany during the last 14 years, and the recent arrival of dispersing wolves in Denmark, is a striking example of just how well wolves can adapt to human-dominated landscapes. This natural recovery of wolves in extreme landscapes provides a foundation for a great deal of optimism for large carnivore conservation.
Wolves were eradicated from Germany and other countries in the northwest of the continent during the 19th century. During the 20th century the landscape of Germany was transformed into one of the most human-dominated landscapes in Europe, with intensive agriculture, industrial forestry, massive infrastructure development and widespread urbanisation. A visit in the 1930's promoted the American conservationist, Aldo Leopold, to comment that it was "Germans who had taught the world to plant trees like cabbages". Not exactly the wilderness with which wolves have long been associated in the popular imagination. Individual dispersing wolves from Poland had occasionally turned up in Germany during the 20th century, but nobody expected them to recolonize.
However, in 2000 a breeding pack was detected in a military training area in the Lauritz region of Saxony. This pack bred regularly during the next few years, but it was not until 2005 that a second pack was detected close to the first pack. Since then the population has increased rapidly to the extent that during the winter of 2012-2013 there were a minimum of 18 packs and 7 pairs of wolves in Germany. While the main concentration is still in the area of original colonisation in Saxony, packs and pairs have been registered across an ever expanding area. Last winter three packs were even registered in Lower Saxony.
In addition to these resident wolf packs and pairs, individual animals have been dispersing across Germany. To widespread surprise at least 3 wolves have arrived in Denmark in the last year. At least one of these wolves has been genetically identified as coming from a known pack in Saxony. To even greater surprise a wolf was also found shot in the Netherlands in 2012, although the origins of this wolf are currently uncertain. One young wolf that was equipped with a GPS tracking collar beautifully illustrated the ability of wolves to negotiate the modern European landscape. During the course of just a few months this wolf travelled from eastern Germany, across all of northern Poland into Belarus and Lithuania.
The scales at which individual wolves move and the rapidity of their recolonisation has been presenting many challenges for Germany, largely because the country is a federal state with authority for nature management delegated to each of the 16 states. Different states practice different monitoring approaches, have different responses to conflict mitigation, and have individual management plans. The result can be that individual wolf packs that span state borders can be subject to different management realities on different days of the week depending on how they travel. This is even further complicated by the fact the German wolves are part of a transboundary population that extends into western Poland.
Despite the administrative challenges, the expansion of wolves in Germany has not been associated with dramatic conflicts. Depredation on livestock has been low, although many hunters have been vocal in the opposition to the return of wolves, fearing competition for game species. This relatively peaceful colonisation has been facilitated in some areas by intensive communication work. Saxony stands out in this regard, having funded a public relations office with full-time staff for many years. The dense network of roads and highways that criss-crosses Germany takes a toll on wolves, with many individuals being killed each year. In addition, illegal killing occurs. So far these mortality factors have not been of sufficient magnitude to prevent expansion. The current policy calls for further expansion of wolves.
The story of German wolf recovery is a dramatic testimony to the ability of wolves to adapt to human-dominated landscapes. It forces us to forget all the associations that we have between wolves and wilderness. Wolves can thrive just as well in a cultivated farmland / forest mosaic as in remote mountains. This is really good news for wolf conservation, as wilderness is basically absent in Europe. It opens up the potential to imagine wolves occupying just about any part of the European landscape. The only limitation appears to be the ability of people to accept their new neighbours.
Kontaktbüro Wolfsregion Lausitz http://www.wolfsregion-lausitz.de/
Information about wolves in Denmark http://www.naturstyrelsen.dk/Naturbeskyttelse/Artsleksikon/Dyr/Pattedyr/Rovdyr/Ulv/Fakta_om_ulv/ulve_i_danmark/