Killing Norway’s Wolves

Adding to Norway’s already controversial wildlife policies regarding seal and whale hunting, the Norwegian government equipped hunters with helicopters, snowmobiles and a budget of nearly $885,000 last February to kill 10 of the estimated 25 wolves in the country. During the hunt in Osterdalen, a valley along the Swedish border, one wolf escaped after the April 6 hunting deadline passed.

The wolves had wandered outside of Norway’s "wolf zones," areas designated by the Norwegian Directorate for Nature Management (NDNM) in May 2000. A hunt for another nine wolves outside the zone is expected to take place later this year. Conservationists argue that the zones are misplaced. "The most suitable habitats in Norway are the huge forests close to the Swedish border," says Viggo Ree of the Norwegian Carnivore and Raptor Society (NCRS). "But wolves aren’t allowed there."

Scandinavia"s wolf population is dwindling because of poorly defined habitat zones, ill-managed sheep farming and a narrow interpretation of species sustainability.© Bjoern Tore Bjoersvik / WWF Norway

Scandinavian wolves were granted some protection almost 30 years ago after having been hunted nearly to extinction. Today, Norway and Sweden share a wolf population of approximately 80 animals. A Scandinavian advisory panel of scientists says at least 200 wolves are needed to sustain the population.

Environmental groups World Wildlife Fund-Norway (WWF), Friends of the Earth-Norway and NCRS tried to block the hunt by taking the issue to court, citing violations of international agreements and Norwegian law. But a narrow interpretation of the law largely influenced the court’s decision. Sweden and Norway had a goal of preserving eight to 10 family groups of wolves. A 1998 bilateral agreement defines a "family group" as a male and female pair (alpha mates) with pups. But the NDNM now says only one alpha wolf is needed to be considered a family group. The difference in definitions marks the difference between a protected species and a species allowed to be hunted. So depending on whom you ask, there are now between four and 12 family groups in Scandinavia.

"The big controversy about wolves in Norway is sheep," says Rufus Hansson, CEO of WWF-Norway. He says nearly 130,000 sheep die on the pasture each year, and of those, 800 are killed by wolves. Ree says sheep management is a larger problem than carnivores. "About 80 percent of Norwegian sheep owners have full-time jobs doing other things," he says. "So [the sheep] aren’t looked after properly." The NCRS, WWF-Norway and other conservationist groups advocate using fences, guard dogs and herders to adapt wolves into sheep farming society.