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Wolves Are Back In Germany, But Not Always Welcome

Dec 15, 2018
Originally published on December 25, 2018 4:56 am

Wolves are making a big comeback in Germany, which is making some Germans uneasy.

Farmers and hunters drove the species out of the country over 150 years ago, but conditions for wolves became more welcoming in 1990, after Germany's reunification extended European endangered species protections to the eastern part of the country.

Since 2000, the Central European gray wolves have been moving back, mostly from Poland. In Brandenburg state, which surrounds Berlin, the number of known wolf packs jumped from zero in 2007 to 26 this year, according to the state's environmental office.

That has come as a shock to many farmers, who now have to worry about protecting livestock from predators. They don't lose many animals to wolves nationally, but the few incidents that happen can be dramatic. In April, at least 40 sheep were killed in a single attack, and news reports described the aftermath as looking "like horror."

At an anti-wolf rally in November in Brandenburg's capital of Potsdam, farmer Marco Hintze said farmers should once again have the right to shoot at wolves.

"If we miss him it's OK, if we don't miss him, [it shouldn't be] against the law, and that's what we try to fight for," Hintze says.

He says government officials are insensitive to the worries of people living in the countryside. He thinks urban Germans have come to romanticize the returning wolves.

"They think, 'Aww, it's a nice wolf, and he needs to be in nature and be free.' But people raised in the countryside, they don't need the wolf anymore," Hintze says.

There are many similarities with wolf politics in the American West, where hunters and ranchers also criticize wolf restoration as a policy supported by urban environmentalists who don't have to live with the everyday reality of having the predator around.

Dirk Wellershoff, with the Brandenburg Hunting Society (Landesjagdverband Brandenburg), sees the returning wolves as a symptom of a bigger political problem.

"I get the impression that our politics in all of Germany is getting distant from the people and our concerns," he says. "And we observe very clearly with the wolves how our problems aren't being seen ... and solutions aren't being found."

Hans-Holger Liste, a soil ecologist who volunteers with a pro-wolf organization called Wolfsschutz Deutschland, says political attitudes on the issue mirror the left-right split that he's observed in the U.S.

"Definitely, I would say it's going to be the same," he says. In the last round of elections in Germany, "the Left Party and the Green Party were almost 100 percent pro-wolf, and the party of very conservative people were basically against wolves."

By the "very conservative people," he means the Alternative for Germany, an upstart party on the far right that has built up political clout by campaigning against immigration — of humans. But now they're also against the arriving wolves.

Liste says there are good environmental reasons to protect the wolves. The returning predators help to control the overabundant deer population, which in turn limits the damage hungry deer do to newly planted trees.

He also acknowledges emotional reasons for supporting the wolves. Liste finds it exciting to have them moving back into the woods around his house in Beelitz, near Berlin.

"If you meet them for the first time, it's like a spiritual experience. They stand there, they're not afraid of anything, they don't run from you, they just move slowly away," Liste says.

He thinks most of his neighbors share his feelings, but he knows there's intense anger in other parts of rural Germany. Over the summer, in the eastern state of Saxony, authorities found the remains of a female wolf that had been illegally shot and then sunk into a lake with a concrete weight.

"It was such a gruesome act of killing," Liste says. "As the media called it, it was like a mafia killing."

He thinks some of the hostility toward the wolves is a remnant of fairy tales such as Little Red Riding Hood. He loved those stories when he was a kid, he says — though he usually sympathized with the wolves.

The animal is likely to be an important issue in the next local elections, Liste predicts.

There have been more high-profile incidents, including the report of an attack on a 55-year-old man in northern Germany in November. It's not certain it was a wolf that bit him — wolf attacks on humans are very unusual, and a subsequent DNA test of his wound was inconclusive — but the report threatens to inflame fears for the safety of children in rural areas.

At the federal level, Chancellor Angela Merkel's ruling Christian Democratic Union party responded to the growing tensions by proposing a downgrade to the legal protections for wolves, which would allow for some hunting.

Journalist Anna Noryskiewicz contributed reporting for this story from Potsdam, Germany.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So if you live in the Western United States, you know that wolves can be a real point of contention. Things can get pretty heated when the government helps to restore wolves back to a region over the objections of local ranchers and hunters. And it turns out that this conflict is not unique to America, as NPR's Martin Kaste discovered on a recent reporting trip in Germany.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: There are a lot of similarities between wolf politics in the U.S. and Germany, but those similarities do not include the protests. Anti-wolf rallies in Germany tend to be pretty German.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Playing horns).

KASTE: Hunting horns are the big draw at this anti-wolf rally in Potsdam outside Berlin. Hunters and farmers are showing their displeasure with the growing number of wolves in the countryside. Farmer Marco Hintze wants to be allowed to do something about it.

MARCO HINTZE: That we are able to shoot. If we miss them, it's OK. If we don't miss them, it's not against the law. And that's what we're trying to fight for.

KASTE: But right now, wolves are strictly protected by German and European law. That protection has allowed their numbers to grow rapidly, especially in the East since German reunification. And Hintze says part of the problem is that city people have romanticized the returning wolves.

HINTZE: They think, oh, it's a nice wolf, and he needs to be in nature and be free. But people raised on the countryside - they don't need the wolf anymore.

KASTE: Once the hunting horns are done, demonstrators show how they feel about wolves by introducing a character who's never very far from this debate in Germany.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #1: (Speaking German).

KASTE: Yes, it's "Little Red Riding Hood." A teenaged girl dressed the part steps to the microphone and starts the famous tale of what a wolf did to her.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: (Speaking German).

KASTE: But there are plenty of people in Germany who don't take Little Red Riding Hood's side.

HANS-HOLGER LISTE: Well, I liked when it was a kid's reading - a glimpse of fairy tales. And I was always more sympathizing with the wolves than with the people...

KASTE: Hans-Holger Liste is a soil ecologist and member of a pro-wolf activist group. Walking through the woods near his house, he says having them come back here has been thrilling.

LISTE: If you meet them for the first time, it's like a spiritual experience. They stand there. They're not afraid of anything. They don't run from you. It just moves slowly away maybe.

KASTE: He says his enthusiasm is shared by his neighbors, but this community is still kind of suburban within commuting distance from Berlin. Attitudes turn more anti-wolf as you get farther into farming areas. In a remote corner of Saxony this summer, wildlife authorities found a young female wolf that had been illegally shot and then sunk into a lake with a cement weight attached.

LISTE: It was such a gruesome act of killing. As we called it and the media called it, it was like a - mafia-like killing.

KASTE: But the anti-wolf people also have reasons to be upset. In another part of Saxony, a farmer found 40 sheep and five goats killed by wolves in one attack. Farmers get compensation, but all of this has made wolves a hot political issue in Germany. And Liste says just like in the U.S., it usually comes down to a simple matter of left versus right.

LISTE: Definitely. I would say it's going to be the same.

KASTE: He says the pattern was already clear in the last elections.

LISTE: The Left Party and the Green Party - they were almost 100 percent pro-wolf. And the party of very conservative people were basically against wolves.

KASTE: That party he's talking about is the Alternative for Germany, the upstarts on the far-right that gained so much ground recently by campaigning against immigration - human immigration. But now they're also against the wolves.

(CROSSTALK)

KASTE: And at that demonstration in Potsdam, you get the sense that this is about more than just wolves. Again, just as in the Western United States, rural people here see the wolves as a symptom of an arrogant, out-of-touch government. Dirk Wellershoff is with the Brandenburg Hunting Society.

DIRK WELLERSHOFF: (Speaking German).

KASTE: "I get the impression that our politics in all of Germany is getting distant from the people and our concerns," he says. "And we observe very clearly with the wolves how our problems are not being seen and solutions aren't being found."

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: (Speaking German).

KASTE: At the microphone, Red Riding Hood is reaching the end of her story. It's the more gruesome grim version of the tale in which she and her grandmother sew stones into the wolf's belly. He wakes up, stumbles to the ground and dies.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: (Speaking German).

(APPLAUSE)

KASTE: A moment that's greeted by happy applause. Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.