Why wolves have become a political football in Germany

European grey wolves. Photo: Jean-Christophe Verhaegen/AFP/Getty Images
European grey wolves. Photo: Jean-Christophe Verhaegen/AFP/Getty Images

The German government is mulling some weighty threats these days, Brexit, US auto tariffs… and wolves.

Canis lupus lupus, aka the European grey wolf, is back from extinction and into the middle of the political debate. What to do about the rapidly expanding wolf population was on the docket at the Bundestag in Berlin this week.

Wolves were wiped out in Germany in the last century, but legislation to protect them and outlaw their killing in the 1990s, like the EU’s Habitats Directive on Fauna and Flora, paved the way for their gradual return.

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Now they’re thriving: the Federal Documentation and Advice Centre on the Wolf (DBBW) estimated that in 2017 there were some 800 wolves in 60 or more packs spread across seven states in Germany.

The DBBW said recently that wolf attacks on livestock rose by over 65% in 2017 from the year before. Wolves, it said, killed or injured over 1600 livestock, mainly sheep, in 2017.

It is mainly the threat wolves pose to sheep that has put environmentalists, farmers, and politicians at each others’ throats.

Germany’s four main opposition parties in parliament are split down the middle. The Left Party and the Greens have staked out their position that wolves should continue to be afforded complete protection.


The Free Democrats and the Alternative for Germany (AfD) are advocating for wolf hunting to be legalised to control the population and protect people’s livelihoods in the countryside.

The right-wing AfD not only proposes an “upper limit” to the amount of wolves in the country, something it also demanded regarding refugees, but also suggests examining the genetic status of wolves to distinguish between pure race wolves or mixed-species wolves, arguing that if they’re mixed they shouldn’t be afforded protected status, i.e. they could be shot.

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With migration no longer the fraught issue that it was in the run up to the federal election in 2017, the AfD Germany has been casting around for new messages — for example, it agreed to campaign for Germany’s exit from the EU if its reform demands are not met. Germany has a number of important state elections coming up this year, but it remains to be seen if the party will harness the issue of wolf control to try and win voters in rural areas.


Angela Merkel’s ruling Christian Democrats and their coalition partners the Social Democrats are in favour of an EU review of the wolf’s protected status with a view to the “necessary reduction” of the population.

Perhaps if the wolves would contain themselves to Germany’s protected reserves, the obsession with the animals would lessen, but, being wild predators, they roam. A recent study by German biologists found that wolves much prefer to settle on military training grounds than in nature reserves, including active grounds where the army conducts exercises.

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The researchers said that a big reason the wolves were flourishing on these military areas is because private hunting is prohibited, whereas nature reserves are split up into numerous hunting areas, which ups the risk of wolves being poached and illegally shot.

The wolf debate won’t be going away anytime soon. According to the DBBW, their numbers will keep growing—although it noted that they are for the most part not dangerous to humans.