One of the hottest topics in Dutch wildlife conservation at the moment curiously involves a species that is – as far as we know – not currently present within the country. There really is no species better capable of causing this effect than the one in question: Canis lupus. A few decades ago any suggestion that wolves might again roam the Dutch countryside would have been laughed away. Today, the animals are on the verge of doing so. In advance of the species’ arrival, the competent Dutch authorities have initiated a participatory process which is to culminate in a national Wolf Plan.
With wolf populations in Germany and France continuing to expand, the scene appears set for a natural return of wolves to the Netherlands. In 2011, several probable wolf sightings occurred in the east of the country, but they did not deliver indisputable proof. Since early 2013, similarly tentative sightings have occurred in another area bordering on Germany. These probably correspond with a wolf that was camera-trapped 30 kilometers across the border into Germany in April 2013 (Link). In the summer of 2013, several possible but again not indisputable wolf scats were detected in the center of the Netherlands. The situation at present thus consists of a few unconfirmed indications and a number of people keeping an eager lookout for conspicuous scats and paw prints in the Dutch outdoors. As it is, the last fully confirmed wild wolf sighting in the Netherlands still dates from 1869.
The wolf’s expected re-colonization fits a modern trend of long lost species returning to the Netherlands after absences of a century or more. The wolf is only a few steps behind the otter (Lutra lutra), beaver (Caster fiber), white-tailed eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla) and common crane (Grus grus), all of which have recently re-established themselves in the country as reproducing species.
Whichever way, few now doubt whether wolves will return to the Netherlands. The questions are when and to what extent the species will do so. Although the country appears to contain quite a bit of potentially suitable wolf habitat, its dense human population and infrastructure network are likely to pose considerable challenges. Any future attempts to re-colonize the Netherlands may therefore provide further insight into the extent of wolves’ adaptive capacity – and people’s adaptive capacity.
Under these circumstances, the responsible Dutch authorities have taken various steps to prepare themselves and society at large for the wolf’s expected comeback. This has involved a fact-finding study, opinion poll, assessment of experiences in other countries and workshops involving all stakeholders ranging from conservationists to sheep farmers. It has also involved a legal study commissioned to assess the viability of various policy options regarding the management of wolves should they return to the Dutch landscape. The process has culminated in a national Wolf Plan that is currently being contemplated for adoption. The Ministry of Economic Affairs, being the current national authority dealing with wildlife conservation in the Netherlands, commissioned the development of a blueprint for the Wolf Plan, which was finalized in October 2013. The blueprint is the result of a participatory process involving national and provincial governmental bodies, protected area managers, NGOs, livestock farmers’ organizations, hunting associations and academics from various disciplines. One NGO initiative, called ‘Wolven in Nederland’, has been particularly influential in both the Wolf Plan process and the societal debate more generally, in the latter respect most notably by informing the public (www.wolveninnederland.nl).
The scope of the blueprint is broad. Among other things, it includes guidelines regarding information and communication, monitoring and research and the prevention and compensation of damages to livestock. It also includes a discussion of the applicable legislative framework for wolves, including the species’ generic protection through various prohibitions, the designation of protected areas and transboundary cooperation with neighboring states. Nevertheless, the Wolf Plan has not yet been formally adopted by government and it remains to be seen to what degree the blueprint will be transformed into actual policy.
One feature does stand out, namely the proactive manner in which the entire process has been conducted, in absentia thus far of the protagonist species itself. In other European jurisdictions, dedicated wolf policies have mostly been developed after wolf populations had become established, or definitive sightings occurred – the last example being Denmark. The Dutch experience so far appears to affirm the intuitive notion that it is easier to reach a level of agreement amongst stakeholders with conflicting views on wolves before the animals themselves arrive on the scene.
The anticipated return of wolves to the Netherlands has given rise to various legal questions, many of which are addressed in the legal study mentioned above. These include:
· What is the legal status of wolves returning to the Netherlands?
· What can be done about wolves preying on livestock?
· Is a zoning policy of ‘go and no-go areas’ for wolves a viable option?
· At what stage of re-colonization are protected areas to be designated for wolves?
· What is the position of wolf-dog hybrids and of measures to counter hybridization?
· What role is reserved for transboundary cooperation?
However, as pressing as such issues may appear, what is needed most for the moment is for the first obliging wolf to let itself be camera-trapped or deposit some indisputable wild Canis lupus scat within Dutch territory, and so justify the time, energy and money invested in the preparations for the species’ return.
By Arie Trouwborst