The return of the wolf in Europe is a "real danger" to livestock and human life, the European Commission warned Monday as it announced plans to review the species' protection status.
The executive will now enter a "new phase" in its process of deciding whether to downgrade the conservation status of wolves by gathering relevant data from local communities and scientists, following mounting calls by European farmers.
"We need to have an up-to-date set of information and data about the status of the wolf in order to be able to take further action," a European Commission spokesperson said.
The species is currently strictly protected under the Habitats Directive, adopted in 1992, which prohibits the deliberate capture or killing of wolves in the wild.
But packs of wolves have recently returned to EU regions where they have been absent for decades, attacking livestock and fuelling tensions in farming and hunting communities.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was personally impacted in September last year, when her 30-year-old pony, Dolly, was killed by a male wolf in northeastern Germany.
"The concentration of wolf packs in some European regions has become a real danger for livestock and potentially also for humans," von der Leyen said in a statement on Monday.
Derogations to the Habitats Directive allow farmers to take targeted measures to protect their crops and livelihoods, such as using "soft-catch" traps for wolves.
Von der Leyen urged local and national authorities "to take action where necessary" by implementing such derogations.
Farmers vs environmentalists
Farming communities across Europe have called for the conservation status of wolves to be downgraded in response to the mounting threat posed by wolf packs.
A European Parliament resolution in November last year called on the Commission to support the agriculture sector by ensuring more flexibility when protecting their livestock from attacks.
The European People's Party, the biggest group in the Parliament, has led such calls, positioning itself as the defender of farmers' rights in key EU environmental reforms.
Austria, Belgium, Czechia, France, Germany and Italy are among the EU member states that have seen a dramatic increase in the number of livestock killed. In Austria, where the number of livestock killed by wolf packs reportedly increased by 230% to 680 in 2021, several regions have controversially allowed the killing of wolves to counter the negative impact on farmers.
Environmentalists and NGOs claim such killings are in breach of EU law.
Earlier this year, 12 EU environment ministers wrote to Virginijus Sinkevičius, the European Commissioner for the environment, urging the executive not to "weaken the legal protection of the wolf." The letter, initiated by Slovakia, was signed by the ministers of Bulgaria, Germany, Greece, Spain, Ireland, Cyprus, Luxembourg, Austria, Portugal, Romania and Slovenia.
"The slow recovery of wolf populations in the EU must be celebrated, not feared," Reineke Hameleers, CEO at Eurogroup for Animals, said in response to the European Commission's announcement Monday,
"This success remains fragile as the majority of transboundary wolf populations in the EU did not yet reach a favourable conservation status. After investing all these efforts and funds, downgrading the protection status of wolves would not only affect their welfare but also jeopardise their survival and condemn them before they could even be saved," Hameleers added.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the wolf is among the species of "least concern," with its population in Europe "increasing in number and expanding its distribution range" since the 1970s.