Press release: 20 December 2023

Wolf protection rollback a "sombre omen" for wildlife protection in Europe – lawyers

Following immense lobby pressure, the European Commission is moving to scrap adequate protection for wolves – for the first time since the Bern Convention came into force in the 1970s.

The change would open the door to wolves being hunted – despite huge efforts having been made to improve their numbers.

The news comes in spite of data that shows 68% of rural inhabitants in Europe are supportive of maintaining the strict protection status of wolves and other large carnivores.

Lawyers at ClientEarth warn that the proposal lacks proper substantiation – and that opening laws at will sets a dangerous precedent for environmental protection, and the rule of law at large.

ClientEarth wildlife lead Agata Szafraniuk said: “Nature needs balance to do what we desperately need it to do – keep us afloat. Keystone species like the wolf are vital to that balance and their recovery has been a symbol of hope for European nature.

“To remove protection just as you see it is working well is completely counterintuitive. Wolves are not an inconvenience to ecosystems – they are fundamental to them working as they must.

“While pressure to downgrade protection for wolves reportedly comes from farmers and the hunting lobby, data clearly shows that rural communities understand and value the wolf’s role in maintaining ecosystems. There are other ways to deal with perceived threats from large predators than opening the door to hunting.

“The tabling of this proposal has been part of an irregular process. Opening a law and tinkering under the bonnet when it seems convenient sets a really poor precedent – and should raise the alarm about how well protected nature really is. If this proposal goes through, it would be a horrendous signal for how the Commission responds to ambitious nature policies and laws when they’re actually successful.

“Laws like these are there to safeguard not only wildlife and its habitats, but European societies’ rights to healthy environment and safe future.”

ClientEarth authored a report last year that showed that wolf-related legislation is not being used to its full potential – countries do not have proper management plans to respond to population growth, or preventing possible damage.

Szafraniuk said: “You do not change laws until you’ve used them properly. Nature urgently needs intelligent lawmaking – not deregulation. This approach is a sombre omen for Europe’s wildlife.”


Notes to editors:

The proposal looks to move wolves from ‘Strictly Protected’ to ‘Protected’ status.

According to both the Bern Convention and the EU Habitats Directive, if a species is ‘protected' (as opposed to ‘strictly protected'), hunting can be authorised, taking into account the conservation of the populations. The hunting such a species has to be carefully regulated by Member States since they are still obliged to ensure that the favourable conservation status is achieved and maintained for the populations in their biogeographical regions. (European Commission)

The process of tabling this change has been largely led by President von der Leyen. In September 2023, the public were given only 18 days to express their views on the potential revision of the wolf’s protection status.

The European Commission’s press release says:

There are more than 20,000 wolves with generally increasing populations and expanding ranges, and breeding packs in 23 EU Member States. This is a conservation success, made possible by protective legislation, more favourable public attitudes and habitat improvements. 

Wolves, like other large predators, play a crucial role in shaping ecosystems – a famous demonstration being the Yellowstone example.

Hundreds of NGOs have signalled alarm at the Commission’s move, urging lawmakers to reconsider.

In their letter, the NGOs said:

Protecting wolves in Europe is not only a matter of ecological significance, but also a reflection of our commitment to biodiversity conservation and the values of coexistence and tolerance. Wolves are an integral part of Europe's natural heritage, playing a vital role in maintaining ecosystem balance and biodiversity, and the return of the wolf to parts of Europe where the species had previously been extirpated is a considerable conservation success that must not be jeopardised.

About ClientEarth

ClientEarth is a non-profit organisation that uses the law to create systemic change that protects the Earth for – and with – its inhabitants. We are tackling climate change, protecting nature and stopping pollution, with partners and citizens around the globe. We hold industry and governments to account, and defend everyone’s right to a healthy world. From our offices in Europe, Asia and the USA we shape, implement and enforce the law, to build a future for our planet in which people and nature can thrive together.