Von der Leyen sacrifices conservation successes for own political gain

Posted on December, 20 2023

Today, the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen proposed to the EU Member States to downgrade the protection status of the wolf in the Bern Convention, despite the lack of scientific evidence to support such a significant move. WWF calls on the EU Member States to reject this proposal.
The Council of Europe’s Bern Convention is the world's oldest convention in the field of nature conservation protecting both species and habitats and has been in force since 1982. It is seen as the original piece of international law that led to the creation of the EU Habitats Directive, the cornerstone of the EU’s conservation work. No former Commission President has ever proposed to decrease the ambition level of a protected species in an international forum. 

“This is an outrageous announcement that has no scientific justification but is motivated purely by personal reasons and undermines not just the protection status of the wolf, but with it all nature conservation efforts in the EU,” said Sabien Leemans, Senior Biodiversity Policy Officer at WWF European Policy Office. “President von der Leyen is deliberately sacrificing decades of conservation work for her political gain, echoing her political allies’ attempts to instrumentalise the wolf as a scapegoat for socio-economic problems in rural communities. This is unacceptable and can create a dangerous precedent for all species and habitats in and outside the territory of the EU.” 

The move represents a politically motivated U-turn as only last November, the EU rejected Switzerland’s attempt to downgrade the protection status of the wolf, arguing that based on the latest data, the wolf had not reached a favourable conservation status in most EU Member States. 

This change of heart is even more unwarranted given that the proposal for a Council decision does not provide any scientific evidence that the wolf population’s status has changed significantly within a year.

This announcement also flies in the face of public opinion, as it is in stark contrast to the recently published survey on rural communities’ perceptions about co-existence with large carnivores. Its results show that 68% of rural inhabitants think that wolves should be strictly protected and over two-thirds (72%) agree that they have a right to co-exist. 

“The proposal sabotages the EU’s role as the reliable and leading partner in international fora and questions the authenticity of its efforts to achieve global biodiversity goals,” said Sabien Leemans. “Just one year ago, President von der Leyen made a strong statement supporting the landmark agreement to guide global action on nature through 2030 together with the rest of the international community. Today’s announcement calls these international commitments into question.”

Introducing a change to the Bern Convention requires a Council decision and therefore a qualified majority of EU Member States backing the Commission’s proposal. Earlier in 2023, 12 Ministers of Environment wrote to Commissioner Sinkevicius with a clear position against the lowering of the protection status of the wolf.   


Notes to editors

1. From being almost extinct, wolves have been making a remarkable comeback to Europe’s landscapes, largely due to the legal protection they are granted. However, they are far from being in Favourable Conservation Status across the continent. According to the latest IUCN assessment, of the nine transboundary wolf populations in the EU, six have a vulnerable or near-threatened status. In addition, the wolf is still in unfavourable-inadequate conservation status in six out of seven biogeographical regions. 

2. The strict protection of large carnivores, especially wolves, has been a hot topic in the EU for many years. In November 2022, the EP voted on the resolution on the protection of livestock farming and large carnivores in Europe. In June 2023, the Commission published its response to the European Parliament and announced an in-depth analysis of all available scientific and technical data concerning the wolf situation in the EU.

3. On 4 September 2023, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen launched an additional initiative to collect data on “challenges related to the return of wolves”. The accompanying press release on ‘Wolves in Europe’ included misleading information and NGOs immediately expressed their concern about the entire process, calling the Commission and President von der Leyen to make a decision based on reliable scientific data, not on anecdotal evidence submitted through a non-transparent and irregular consultation process.

4. There is no scientific evidence that culling, including a steered hunting regime, is an effective and sustainable solution to large carnivore-related livestock conflicts. A recent study on large carnivores concluded that preventive measures are the most effective way to decrease and avoid livestock damage, while culling and hunting are generally ineffective, and in some cases, counterproductive in mitigating livestock damage.

5. Successful coexistence between humans and wolves has been demonstrated in various European regions through effective preventive measures like installing different types of fences, acquiring livestock guard dogs, and shepherding. European Union guidelines allow Member States to fully compensate farmers for damages caused by protected animals, such as wolves, and to fully reimburse investment costs for preventative measures. The European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD) could also provide support for coexistence but Member States have not fully utilised this funding opportunity.

6. For more information on wolves in Europe, please visit our FAQ page: https://www.wwf.eu/?11724891/Facts-about-wolves-in-Europe 
The move represents a politically motivated U-turn as only last November, the EU rejected Switzerland’s attempt to downgrade the protection status of the wolf, arguing that based on the latest data, the wolf had not reached a favourable conservation status in most EU Member States.
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