Researcher: Not enough room for wolves on small Estonian islands

Wolf. Source: John and Karen Hollingsworth/CC0

Even though wolf numbers have been recovering in recent years and the species is considered to be in good condition in Estonia, the total number of specimens is many times below the peak of the 1990s. Researchers say that attitudes in society suggest Estonians are not willing to tolerate more than a few dozen packs.

Last fall, Estonia counted 33 packs with pups for a total of a little over 300 wolves. The fall-winter hunting season, traffic accidents and more natural causes reduced this to around 150-170 animals by spring. "Wolves are evenly distributed all over Estonia, with high numbers in all areas. Populations have reached the limits of inward growth in major protected areas and other such places, and the only thing that can change is the size of different packs' territories, said Marko Kübarsepp, chief specialist of the game monitoring working group of the Environment Agency. In other words, as the number of packs grows, groups of wolves must settle for a smaller territory.

The number of packs can differ greatly from one year to the next. But Kübarsepp said that wolf numbers are definitely greater than they were 20 years ago. At the low point in 2003, Estonia could have had as few as five packs with pups. It is difficult to say anything concrete about the period before as wolves were counted mainly based on the number of hunted animals, which would amount to comparing apples to oranges.

But it is clear that Estonia had a lot more wolves than it does now in the middle of the 1990s. Kübarsepp said that as society was not as networked at the time, the topic did not find such widespread coverage. "We do not know how many wolves came from other areas at the time. But a single winter saw 308 wolves shot, which might have been over 800 during three years," the chief specialist recalled. Because these numbers persisted for several years, it is believed the total wolf population was much greater than today.

Estonia's large predators control plan recommends maintaining 20-30 packs in mainland Estonia. "This is not something we came up with ourselves, instead, the recommendation was born out of cooperation between several groups. We tend to see public opinion become the number one enemy of wolves whenever their numbers grow too much," Kübarsepp said.

Wolf populations are naturally kept in check by the animals' territorial behavior, while this point is still far away in mainland Estonia. "Wolves can claim much bigger territories than they need to survive. When Estonia still had around 20 packs, each one may have claimed an area of 900-1,200 square kilometers. This has fallen to 500-700 square kilometers now, which is three to four times the size of Tallinn.

Alfa females are willing to tolerate more ambitious young wolves to a certain point. "For example, when one of the leading pair's older daughters decides to settle nearby, the territory is divided in two, just like we used to do with farmland," Kübarsepp pointed out. But starting from a certain point, territories become too small, even if wolves sometimes go after sheep.

This mainly happens on small islands and regarding other isolated populations. "If it is impossible for wolves to emigrate from an island population, fights to the death may occur," the researcher said. This means that the 90 square kilometers that make up the island of Vormsi is not enough to facilitate a larger wolf pack, he suggested, especially if the trend of reduced winter ice cover persists.

Image problem

Marko Kübarsepp said that the image of wolves in society taking a hit might be a bigger problem than fights over territory between the animals themselves. The more wolves that share a limited territory with people, the greater the chance of livestock and dogs being killed. "Looking at the examples of Hiiumaa and Saaremaa, we do not need to foster that defiance and hatred. The wolves do not need it either. People must understand that other species need enough room. If we can take care of our wolves in more suitable places, should we really risk turning public opinion against these predators once again?"

Farmers and ranchers are mostly pestered by adolescent wolves. About year-old wolves are old enough not to be able to rely on their parents, while they are still too young and inexperienced to hunt large game, such as moose. This gap is filled by livestock. Because having more wolves overall means there are also more adolescent animals, it would be little wonder if over a thousand livestock were killed by the end of this year. This would put total damage in the same ballpark as during the record years of 2017 and 2020.

"This becomes a problem if they get into the habit of eating sheep as it is likely they will teach the same behavior to their pups once they start to procreate," Kübarsepp said. While concentrating hunting efforts on young wolves removed from the pack and avoiding killing alfa females could help mitigate damage to livestock, the chief specialist said this is difficult to achieve, and the hunting quotas of different interest groups would likely not be met in that case.

Of dogs and sheep

Wolves killing dogs may disgruntle people even more than damage to livestock. Last year, at least 16 dogs were killed by wolves. Kübarsepp said that such incidents can usually be put down to stress. "Should hunters bring their dogs too close to a place where wolves rest, this may culminate in the animals being killed. Canines are very territorial, and the same fate could easily befall a fox or raccoon dog."

That said, a lot depends on the hunting dog. "The person usually does not see the whole interaction, only that their dog was hurt or killed," the researcher added. The outcome is also determined, in part, by how much the wolves consider dogs to be competitors. For example, incidents in Finland are more often associated with cramped territories and a shortage of prey.

Wolves that have gotten a taste for and consciously attack dogs have been seen even more seldom in Estonia. "I can count all such incidents in my time on the fingers of two hands. And systematic behavior of this kind is quickly eradicated," Kübarsepp said. Finally, it may sometimes happen that a new pair kills a few dogs of remote households to make their mark after settling a new territory. The wolves usually do not eat the dogs.

The researcher admitted that it is impossible to completely rule out wolves going after sheep or other livestock. But looking at statistics, there are things sheep farmers can do. "Ranchers keep saying that even a concrete wall is of little help against wolves. That is not strictly true. Most farms that have experienced wolf attacks have had clear shortcomings. Fences have not been put up or their construction finished. Sheep can be seen wandering around so unrestricted as to be considered fair game, in which case we would be hard-pressed to blame wolves," he said.

Kübarsepp said that farmers often lack the necessary funds to erect proper fences. This points to the need for better-targeted support schemes. Farmers could also think about whether burying animal remains on their own or neighbors' land in order to cut costs is the best idea. "For wolves, it is a walk of just a few minutes. And once they get a taste for it, they'll soon lose interest in cold cuts when the main course is walking around nearby."

"Last season, a total of 116 wolves were hunted, with eight permits outstanding of the culling quota of 124. If wolf numbers continue to grow at an average pace, the number of packs could reach 36. However, more wolves also tend to die of natural causes when their numbers swell, which is why the increase might be that much more modest.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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