Wolves: Can’t Live With ‘Em, Can’t Live Without ‘Em
Predators are a wicked conservation problem because they don’t return direct benefits to people. In fact, they can cost money to live alongside. They can scare people. They can cause trouble. There’s an opportunity for Norway to really lead the way in terms of protecting a species like wolves. But I think the deeper problem is how polarized this conversation has become. It’s really more of an argument among people than an argument between people and wolves. By the early 1900s wolves were more or less extinct in all of Western Europe, driven out by government programs that rewarded people for killing them. In the decades that wolves were not around, people adapted to their absence. In Norway in particular they changed the way they herded sheep. And so when the wolves made their way back, all of a sudden, humans were faced with the possibility of having to change what now seemed like very long-standing traditions. In almost any system that they live in, wolves are top predators, so they have a positive impact on the ecosystem. But those kinds of impacts aren’t being seen quite as dramatically in Europe, mostly because the landscape is so much more human dominated. From a conservation perspective, it’s still an incredible success story. But there’s a very vocal minority of people, concentrated in rural Norway, who feel a deep sense of injustice that they were being asked to bear a disproportionate burden of wolf recovery. For instance, some farmers are switching from raising sheep to raising cows which are less vulnerable to wolves. Some are changing their herding practices. Which might sound like, “of course, that’s easy,” but farming is a difficult business, and that represents to some people a pretty dramatic change. All of those initiatives are in part funded by the government, and helping to resolve the conflict on a practical level. On a deeper level though, there’s just a very baked in resentment toward so-called city people who are seen as getting away with supporting wolves, and not having to deal with the consequences of wolf recovery. Farmers don’t necessarily want to see wolves driven out of Norway again. They’re, in fact, surprisingly supportive of some wolves being present on the Scandinavian peninsula and want to see this species thrive. We have to figure out how to share the inevitable burden that comes with living with predators. It can’t just be the people who are experiencing the most direct effects paying the price. It has to be a country or region as a whole sharing that burden equally. And whether that means sharing the financial costs, or sharing it in some other way, that, in the end, is the toughest conservation nut to crack.