The recovery of populations of wolves, bears, lynx and wolverines is one of the great success stories of European conservation legislation. However, it has come at the price of increasing conflicts. Many years of research all across Europe have been instrumental in developing a mature understanding of how diverse these conflicts can be. This research has been important in helping the European Commission to design more effective policies, including the launching of a stakeholder dialogue platform by Janez Potocnik on 10th June 2014.
By the mid 20th century populations of wolves, bears, Eurasian lynx and wolverines were at all time lows across Europe. The introduction of favourable legislation at national and European levels from the 1970's and onwards created a favourable situation for their recovery. Wolves have shown the most spectacular comeback – naturally recolonizing Scandinavia, Germany, and the Alps and expanding their range in most countries. Bears, lynx and wolverines have also reoccupied many areas from which they had been exterminated, through both natural expansion and reintroduction. In a world where the conservation news is often dominated by doom and gloom this offers an example of hope for biodiversity.
Although this recovery is clearly a success for wildlife conservation, it has come at the cost of increased conflicts. These conflicts have prompted a massive amount of applied research across Europe, where Norway has been among the leaders in the field. The most obvious face of these conflicts concerns depredation on domestic livestock, especially sheep (and semi-domestic reindeer in the Nordic countries). Hardly a week passes without some tabloid media coverage featuring pictures of dead livestock. In response, researchers have been funded to explore these issues. They have used a diversity of approaches involving both extensive fieldwork and analysis of data to elucidate the factors influencing carnivore predation on livestock. Likewise a massive effort has been used to test potential mitigation measures to reduce these conflicts and to develop fair compensation systems. There is now a generally good understanding of the nature of these conflicts and of the potential for different approaches to address them. The extent to which this new knowledge has been integrated into policy varies greatly across Europe, but there is a lot of progress on many fronts.
However, the extent of conflict as expressed by public opinion and the temperature of political debates are not well related to the number of livestock killed. It is here that the research conducted using social science methods have been most useful in revealing the full complexities of these conflicts. Their insights have shown that it is often the symbolism of the carnivores, rather than the carnivores themselves, which is most important in driving conflict. While the conservationist may view the return of the wolf as a positive symbol of an attempt by society to develop a new relationship with nature, many people in rural communities view it as a highly negative symbol of unwanted change. There is no doubt that Europe's rural areas are facing many challenges associated with the wider structural changes influencing society in general, and agriculture in particular. Issues such as rural-urban migration, the negative trends facing extensive livestock production, the abandonment of marginal agricultural areas and associated forest encroachment and changes in political power structures with a greater influence of external and large scale processes are all highly disturbing for many rural people. The role of large carnivores in driving these changes are often secondary, but they add one additional layer of difficulty, and have become focal symbols for all these issues, and in many cases have been heavily instrumentalised in wider political debates. The situation is worst in areas where wolves return after long periods of absence and where people have lost their adaptions to living with these species as neighbours.
The result of this research has been to draw attention to the social and cultural aspects of conflicts, in addition to the more widely understood material and economic aspects. This implies that many different approaches beyond the introduction of practical changes to livestock husbandry are needed to address these aspects of conflict. Recognising the intrinsic political nature of the issue implies that the solutions must also be political in nature. One of the central elements of the conflict concerns a perception of powerlessness among rural stakeholders. In response, several regions and countries have created forums where different stakeholders can interact with decision makers and scientists in and discuss issues of concern. However, until recently many stakeholders have felt powerless with respect to the important decisions made a European level. In response, the European Commission has invested considerable resources in engaging with stakeholders during the last 2-3 years. This process has included commissioning summaries of the status of large carnivores, overviews of their management, reviews of conflicts and a scoping of potential methods to reduce conflicts. Building on this knowledge platform and on the feedback presented by stakeholders the Commission has recently developed a stakeholder platform that is intended to serve as a structured forum for discussion between different stakeholders. The platform was launched in Brussels on June 10th, 2014, by the Commissioner for Environment, Janez Potocnik, with representatives of eight major stakeholders. These included representatives of nature conservation, hunting, agricultural and landowner organizations. The signatories have agreed to use the platform as a forum for constructive discussion and the exchange of experience.
Such forums can have great potential in allowing a diversity of voices to be heard and building better relationships between stakeholders. While it is unlikely that such forums will unify the diverse goals that the different stakeholder groups have, it should improve the interactions between them and hopefully identify areas of common ground for collaborative work. Our earlier work with these stakeholders has identified many areas of common interest that are often forgotten due to the focus on areas of conflict associated with large carnivores. Conflicts over these species are not going to go away anytime soon because they touch on many fundamental issues concerning deeply held values and lifestyle. However, what we can hope for is that we can shape the way these conflicts are played out, reducing the temperature of the debate and building a more constructive dialogue around them.
Having spent so many years working with these conflicts it is positive to see the creation of such forums that build on our results and create structures that should facilitate the wider interface between science and policy.