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Convention rejects Swiss wolf protection change

There are half a dozen wolves living in Graubünden

A Swiss proposal to change wolves' "strictly protected species" label has been rejected by the international Bern Convention on wildlife. It had sought to re-classify the animal's status to better manage a growing Alpine wolf population.

At its annual meeting in Strasbourg, France, the permanent committee of the Bern Convention – a Council of Europe accord on wildlife and natural habitat conservation – turned down the proposal. It said that the current protection status for wolves in Europe is enough to address problems tied to wolf management in Switzerland and the rest of the continent.

The Swiss had proposed bringing the wolf to a protection level of “strictly protected fauna species”, the same status that is currently applied to the lynx. The change would make it easier to kill wolves that were causing damage to livestock and property.

The federal government called for the proposal to be brought to the convention in a November 16 decision, stating that Switzerland could revise its position on the convention’s accords “if the situation that was present at ratification has changed”.

Switzerland last ratified the Bern Convention in 1980, when there were no wolves present in the country; today, there are believed to be several hundred roaming in Alpine areas, including Italy and France. According to Christine Hofmann, deputy director of the Federal Environment Office, there are currently about 15 to 20 wolves in Switzerland itself.

Boosting herd protection

As its proposal at the Bern Convention was refused, parliament must now decide whether Switzerland will retire from the convention and come up with revised suggestions before taking part again, as its recent motion mandates.

In any case, Hoffmann tells that parliament must now re-examine Swiss wolf politics against the mandates of the Bern Convention and come up with workable solutions, most likely involving increased protections for vulnerable livestock herds.

The Federal Environment Office’s current wolf management strategy states that “the wolf belongs to Swiss native species, and its return is natural”. It also states that the wolf is protected, but that special cantonal permits may be obtained to kill a wolf if that animal is causing major damage.

Environmental groups welcomed the proposal’s rejection at the Bern Convention but also cited the need for more herd protection.

“Much more funding is necessary to protect herds and to promote the political will necessary to find constructive solutions,” said Mirjam Ballmer, project manager of nature conservation policy at the environmental group Pro Natura.

Wolf protection has been a hotly debated topic in Switzerland since the animal started making a comeback a decade ago. Many sheep farmers, particularly in eastern Switzerland, have reported wolf attacks on their livestock and continue to advocate for better wolf management measures.

However, environmental groups and a large percentage of the general public are in support of  a continued strict protection status for the wolf.

Wolves gained “strictly protected” status in Europe under an international agreement after being driven to extinction in the 19th century, largely by hunting and the expansion of human settlements. They started to return to Switzerland about ten years ago from neighbouring Italy and have begun colonising again.

Their diet mostly includes stags (30%), deer (21%), goats (12%), sheep (12%), ibex, chamois and wild boar (5%) and cattle (2.5%). They generally live high up in the mountains and don’t attack sheep if they have other things to eat and if the sheep are protected by guard dogs.

The federal government’s “Swiss Wolf Project” was drawn up in 2001, with revisions later added permitting the shooting of any wolf believed to have killed at least 35 sheep over a four-month period, or 25 in a single month.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR