A massive Swedish wolf hunt would be 'disastrous' for the species, experts warn

Hunters will be allowed to kill 75 wolves from an already endangered population of 460 as public acceptance falls

The largest wolf cull in modern times has begun in Sweden because nature organizations warned it could drastically harm the population.

Hunters will be allowed to kill 75 wolves out of a population of 460, as the government seeks to reduce the population density of predators in certain districts.

“Hunting is absolutely necessary to slow down the growth of wolves. The wolf pack is the largest we have in modern times,” Gunnar Glöersen, predator manager at the Swedish Hunter Association, told local press as the hunt began on Monday.

However, nature organizations have shown that Sweden's wolf population is relatively low – in Italy there are just over 3,000.

They have appealed against the decision, which they say violates the EU's Bern convention, but without success.

“You are discouraged. There is report after report that the wolf tribe has a big problem, but [the government] is not taking it seriously,” said Daniel Ekblom, of the Nature Conservation Association wildlife management group in Gävleborg.

Marie Stegard, president of the anti-poaching group Jaktkritikerna, said: “Wolves as the apex predators in the food chain are a prerequisite for biodiversity. Killing a quarter of the population through hunting has negative consequences for animals and nature. This is disastrous for the entire ecosystem. The existence of wolves contributed to a richer animal and plant life. Human survival depends on healthy ecosystems.”

Anna-Caren Sätherberg, Sweden's minister of rural affairs, recently told public broadcaster SVT: “We see the wolf population increasing every year and with this extermination, we want to ensure that we can achieve the goals set by parliament.

"We can see that the level of conflict has increased, and the acceptance rate has decreased," Sätherberg said, adding that the government had asked the state's environmental protection agency to look again at recommended population numbers.

The agency had previously recommended that the population should not fall below 300, to avoid it weakening further and being threatened by inbreeding. However, a majority in Sweden's parliament supports cutting the wolf population to 170 individuals, at the bottom of the 170 to 270 range that would allow the country to meet the conservation requirements of the EU species and habitat directive.

A group of scientists from Europe's top universities recently wrote in the journal Science, arguing that scientific advice for this purpose had not been sought and that it would threaten an already fragmented and fragile population.

Benny Gäfwert, a predator expert at WWF, said the parliamentary figure of 170 "is not based on any scientific fact".

"Unexpected things can happen to wild populations and level 170 is too low," he told SVT. "We have a problem with wolf genetics, and the smaller the wolf population, the greater the impact of fluctuations in genetic status."

Norway shares a wolf population with Sweden along its border, which poses a further threat to the endangered predator. The Norwegian and Swedish wolf populations - Scandinavian wolves - are on the endangered species list and are categorized as critically endangered in Norway and critically endangered in Sweden. The Norwegian government has enforced a very strict wolf management policy with a fixed population target of only four to six litters each year. As far as is known, Norway is the only country in the world that sets maximum target numbers for endangered species. This allows hunters to drastically reduce the wolf population each year.

This extra pressure from the Swedish government, nature campaigners say, could further harm the species.

Nature group Aktivt Rovdyrvern (ARV) said: “Population genetics has shown that to maintain a viable population you need to have around 1,500 individuals with genetic variation. Sweden and Norway currently have around 400 wolves but this is likely to be reduced to around 200 individuals with 170 of them in Sweden and the remaining 30 in Norway. This is incompatible with establishing and strengthening viable wolf populations on the Scandinavian peninsula in either the short or long term.”

The Swedish government has been contacted for comment.

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