The return of large carnivores in many parts of Western Europe is a conservation success story but on the other hand has led to severe polarised and politicised debates. The return of the wolf in particular and bear in some areas is often blamed with endangering pastoral systems and rural livelihoods. Different multi-actors platforms from European to local levels have been created to facilitate constructive dialogue around the topic and define possible solutions. This blog post provides a picture of the debate around large carnivores and existing multi-actor platforms to address it.
The return of large carnivores in rural Europe
Since the 1950s, thanks to supportive conservation policies, there has been a marked recovery of large carnivore populations, which now range over roughly one third of the continental European land mass. The presence of large carnivores (bear, wolf, lynx and wolverine) in extensive livestock rearing regions presents a different challenge to most farmland species. In particular, the wolf returning to large areas of Western Europe has led to conflicts with extensive grazing systems. Extensive grazing systems are crucial for Europe because they support important rare habitats and species and can provide additional ecosystem services such as wildfire control as well as maintaining cultural heritage.
Large carnivores are perceived as presenting an ongoing threat to livelihoods, and potentially lives (bears), and this was the main driver for their deliberate near-extermination. The main policy response to the resulting increase in livestock depredation has been to compensate farmers for animals lost and to implement livestock protection measures. The conflict surrounding large carnivores, however, is now widely acknowledged to be grounded on more than the material damages and is linked to a range of socio-psychological effects and power relationships as well as the feeling that costs are unfairly shared.
A European platform for coexistence
The debate around the impact of large carnivores on pastoralism is highly polarised and highly politicised with interested parties dividing themselves into “pro” and “anti” camps. Many lobbying activities focuses on the downgrading of the protection status of the wolf. A few examples are the recent (unsuccessful) proposal at the Bern Convention Standing Committee to down list the wolf and a resolution of the European Parliament on the protection of livestock farming and large carnivores in Europe. This latter called for a re-evaluation of wolf status amongst other things. One of the few aspects, that both “pro” and “anti” sides agree on, is that the engagement of stakeholders directly affected by large carnivores is essential. These stakeholders cannot be expected to bear the costs without recognition. To address this issue, the EU Platform on Coexistence between People and Large Carnivores was set up and has been gathering information and discussing good practices since 2014. The Platform is made up of EU representative stakeholders representing hunters, landowners, conservationists, scientists, parks and reindeer herders. It meets in plenary once a year and organises regional workshops in areas of conflict. Additionally, it gathers together background information on large carnivores include a range of EU-wide comparisons on good practices and financing.
Local and regional multi-actor platforms for coexistence
Learning from the EU level experiences, an EU funded pilot project financed regional to local large carnivore platforms. Thanks to these platforms, different groups of stakeholders met to discuss the issues linked to the return and presence of large carnivores and to eventually agree a range of concrete actions to be financed by the project.
Such platforms addressed for example, conflicts caused by bears entering towns in Harghita, Romania or conflicts related to wolf protection measures (especially the use of guarding dogs) and other land uses in Vercors, France. Livestock breeders were important participants in all these platforms and interestingly the actions financed at the end, rarely focus directly on large carnivores, but often on increasing the economic worth of agricultural products or better sharing of the territory between different land users.
While some of the regional platforms collaborated well, in others, the discussions were more challenging. The facilitators and organisers of the platforms have summarised what they learned from the experience in a toolkit published by the EU platform. While addressing the rather specific topic of large carnivores, the tools and methods included can apply to any other types of multi-stakeholder platform, where conflict between interest groups may be an issue.
Large carnivores and the return of the wolf, in particular has brought concrete issues related to wildlife management to the fore. But it also highlights a range of other issues existing between different interest groups and the economic difficulties faced in many rural areas. While media debate focuses on pitting different interests against one another, the experiences from the platforms show that collaboration is possible and that discussing the wider issues faced by a locality, can be more constructive than focusing on species which have themselves become a symbol.