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Estonian wolf hunting dispute waiting for EU Court of Justice decision

A Eurasian Wolf.
A Eurasian Wolf. Source: Alison Day/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

The Estonian Supreme Court has turned to the Court of Justice of the EU for its position on whether Estonia's wolf culling quota should consider their numbers in Estonia, the Baltics or all of Europe. There are more wolves in Estonia than their conservation plan prescribes.

While the wolf hunting season is set to start November 1, NGO Large Predators in Estonia and the Environment Agency have been locked in a dispute over the culling quota for years.

In 2012, the large predators' conservation and control activity plan for 2012-2021 found the situation of large predators in Estonia to be favorable and set a goal for the next 30 years of maintaining the wolf population at recent levels. It was decided to retain 15-25 wolf packs that have young annually for a total of 150-250 animals by the start of the hunting season.

In 2020, the Environment Board set the wolf culling quota at 140 specimens but reserved the right to make changes based on the Environment Agency's recommendations. The number of packs with young was forecast at 32-34 for that fall.

NGO Large Predators in Estonia moved for the quota directive to be quashed in administrative court. It found that the wolf's conservation status in Estonia was not in fact favorable and that killing so many specimens would complicate achieving it. Conservationists find recent hunting pressure to be unsustainable and based on assessments according to which neighboring countries are doing more for conservation, which causes wolves to migrate to Estonia.

"The size of the [Estonian wolf] population is unknown, which is why issuing hunting permits is unacceptable," conservationists said, adding that habitat loss has not been considered or hunts concentrated in those areas.

The Environment Board disagreed and found that Estonia has a healthy wolf population. It also found that Estonia's small territory means the local wolf population cannot be viewed in isolated context. The entire Baltic population in Europe has been estimated at 870-1,400 specimens. The board also pointed out that wolves' food resources have improved and that 26 packs with pups were forecast for 2020.

The Environment Agency also asked the claim to be dropped, pointing out that wolf numbers will likely continue to be higher than what the activity plan recommends.

The court decided in 2021 not to satisfy the action, while the NGO appealed the call in circuit court.

The latter found there was not enough proof to uphold the appellant's claim according to which there was insufficient proof of the size of the population, as well as that monitoring data did not suggest a population decline.

The NGO Large Predators in Estonia next took the case to the Supreme Court which concluded last Friday that recent Court of Justice practice has not provided a clear answer in terms of how wolf populations should be counted. The case has been suspended until a relevant Court of Justice decision is handed down.

Wolves have killed close to a thousand sheep and 20 dogs this year

Aimar Rakko, head of the Environment Board's hunting and aquatic life bureau, told Vikerraadio that the top court is asking the EU Court of Justice for a preliminary decision, and wants to know how Estonia should manage its wolf population.

"Whether we should consider the entire population and conservation status in Europe or whether we should look at it much more narrowly, at just the Baltic population or just the Estonian one," he explained.

Whether there are a lot of wolves in Estonia is in the eye of the beholder. Rakko said that while sheep farmers believe the wolf population has gotten out of hand, people who love to move around in nature and spot wildlife believe there are too few.

Wolves kill around 600-700 sheep every year, while this figure is already over a thousand for this year, Rakko said. Wolves have also killed around 20 dogs this year.

The board's spokesperson added that while Estonia could support twice the current wolf population in terms of territory and food resources, their numbers should be kept at the current level from a socioeconomic point of view to avoid loss of sheep, goats and dogs.

While the culling quota was set at 124 last season, the Environment Agency has not tallied up the monitoring data or decided the quota for this year yet. Rakko said it will probably be slightly bigger than last year's.

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Editor: Karin Koppel, Marcus Turovski

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