The wolf is currently quite the hot potato in Finland. In fact, wolves are such a burning topic, that finding neutral information on the current state of the species and on hunting it can be difficult.
Wolf pup in Polar Park, Norway. © Sari Holopainen
Wolves form packs of several individuals to optimize their ability to hunt moose and deer, their staple food. A pack is run by an alpha pair, or a male and female wolf that have mated for life. The other individuals in a pack do not produce offspring, and young individuals may wander between packs to find mates or raise their position in the hierarchy. Alpha pairs are what keep a pack together.
The wolf is designated an endangered (EN) species in Finland, and strictly protected in the European Union (EU). The Finnish wolf population grew during the early 2000s, due to increased protection and additional individuals moving in from Russia. This increased both the incidence of damage caused by wolves (e.g. to hunting dogs) and the number of wolf sightings around human habitation, leading to dissatisfaction in wolf conservation measures and increased poaching. The wolf population began declining in 2007 due to widespread poaching, which in turn angered conservation organizations and the EU. Since then the wolf population size has seesawed back and forth, and confrontations between various interest groups have escalated.
To alleviate the wolf conflict, the Finnish Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry decided to implement a two-year trial wolf hunt in 2015–2016, aimed to control the population. The effects of the cull will be evaluated after this period. The trial cull is based on a wolf management plan, which attempts to incorporate both the requirements of people living in wolf territory and that of wolf conservation. The management plan is territory-based, meaning all actions are planned per wolf pack and territory.
The management plan determines the smallest viable wolf population as 25 breeding pairs. The Natural Resources Institute Finland (Luke) will produce an estimate for the country’s total wolf population, and based on this evaluation the Ministry determines the largest yearly quota that can be culled using population control permits. However, this quota does not automatically have to be reached.
Population control permits are granted for hunting young individuals, which most likely have the smallest impact on the vitality of a pack. These permits can also be granted for hunting problematic individuals that e.g. repeatedly enter yards or come close to humans. Population control permits can only be granted to target wolf packs that produce litters, or in special conditions on packs in areas where the species has a stronghold. In addition to population control permits, wolves can also be hunted with special permits granted for damage control or by law enforcement. These two permit types are granted only when dealing with problem wolves.
Wolf population fluctuations and management will continue to cause problems in the future. Various interest groups have lost trust in each other and in the Ministry’s wolf management plan. Accommodating both the protection and management of an extremely endangered top predator is very difficult in a situation where said species also causes damage to and fear in certain interest groups. Additionally, protecting the Finnish forest reindeer (Rangifer tarandus fennicus), another extremely endangered species, requires straightforward action plans in terms of the wolf. Population levels of the Finnish forest reindeer are believed to have suffered because of the dense wolf population in the district of Kainuu.
Wolf in Polar Park, Norway. © Sari Holopainen
The complete protection of the wolf, a management regime in practice at the beginning of the 2000s, obviously failed to work. The population grew initially, but was quickly bulldozed by unsustainable poaching. The population decreased up to 15% a year between 2006 and 2010. The population was approximately 250–270 individuals at the end of 2006, but by the end of 2007 the level had dropped to 200. Complete protection of the species crossed a line in Finnish society, after which poaching was used as an excuse for preventing future damage – a situation that should not be allowed to form. Returning to a similar conservation model would require intensive intervention to stop poaching.
The two-year trial cull was completed at the end of February. Luke evaluated the Finnish wolf population at 220–245 individuals prior to the trial period in 2015. Two hunting seasons later, in March 2016, population levels were estimated at 200–235 individuals. When looking solely at these numbers, the cull has managed to keep the population fairly level. However, 43 wolves were shot during the two-year cull, and over half of these (24) were over two-year-old individuals. It is easy to see that the cull has not met its goal of only targeting young individuals. In fact, a staggering 21% of the culled individuals were alphas. And this level may still increase once age determination is complete for all the culled individuals. Such a high number is unsustainable in terms of future hunting management.
Culling each of these alphas has either caused the weakening or disbanding of a pack, leading to higher numbers of individuals or small groups of wolves roaming around unable to optimize their hunting. This is exactly the way to create more problem wolves that willingly come close to human habitation or begin killing hunting dogs. Additionally, several worrying cases have surfaced, where wolves have intentionally been driven towards habitation or have been deliberately wounded to gain more population control or damage control permits for hunting these “problem individuals”. The goal of the wolf management plan is to uphold a viable population in Finland, but at this current rate, the trial wolf cull also appears to have failed.
What next? The future of the wolf cull will be determined during the fall of 2016. The wolf is obviously a species that causes so many societal conflicts, errors in management, and people taking the law into their own hands, that we need to question whether the wolf should remain a species that can be hunted by the general public. Nevertheless, the wolf population does need both management and protection in the future. Perhaps Finland should consider a model where wolf hunting is carried out solely by the (game) authorities. The population control process could remain the same as before, which would allow the cull of problematic individuals and the regulation of pack sizes. But the professional skills of the proper authorities would ensure that overreactions and the killing of alpha individuals could be prevented, which in the long-term could help stabilize the whole population and mitigate wolf-human conflicts.