Flexibility needed for large carnivore management

Recent data indicate that most large carnivore populations in Europe are stable or increasing. This is a conservation success, but it also raises multiple questions of coexistence with natural and human activities. In a recent ruling, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) confirmed that the use of hunting as a population management tool for strictly protected species is compatible with EU law. But what does that mean? And what are the possible next steps?

Meaning of the judgement
The EU’s highest court, the EU Court of Justice (ECJ) published its ruling on 10 October. It involved questions for a preliminary ruling by Finland’s Supreme Administrative Court to the EU’s highest court on the interpretation of ‘derogations’ under the EU Habitats Directive. The case before the Finnish court involved an appeal against permits to hunt a small number of wolves.

The wolf is a strictly protected species for southern Finland according to the EU Habitats Directive. A country can deviate from that strict protection for certain reasons, for example to prevent serious damage to domestic animals, reasons of overriding public interest, or to allow limited taking of individuals under strict supervision. This is called a derogation. The Finnish court asked specific questions on the interpretation of the later of these reasons (Article 16.1.e, Habitats Directive). This allows a country to apply derogations as part of a management plan, when applying strict conditions.

In its ruling, the ECJ confirmed that the use of hunting as a population management tool for strictly protected species is compatible with EU law. It also highlighted that countries need to take account of economic, social and cultural requirements and regional and local characteristics. This could mean agricultural or hunting interests. The ECJ also confirmed the use of hunting for the objective of combatting illegal killing and increasing social acceptance. It did, however, note that in this particular instance it should have been better argued by the Finnish authorities.

Next steps
As the case is now closed and the questions have been answered, it is now up to the Finnish court to give a final verdict on the case. The judgement was quite critical of Finland’s application of the derogations. Heli Siitari of the Finnish Hunters’ Association, in response to the judgement stated:
“The Finnish Hunters’ Association welcomes the preliminary ruling from the EU court that in principle gives green light for management hunting of wolves. We have just updated our wolf management plan in Finland, and management hunting is a tool for this plan. We see this opportunity, although the hunt will be very strictly regulated, as a positive thing for people living in the countryside and for the acceptance of wolf in general”.

Other countries can use this judgement when creating or updating wolf management policy. The EU Court made clear that EU Member States can apply the Habitats Directive flexibly and pragmatically. FACE has always been promoting such a flexible approach to large carnivore conservation and management. If countries want to use their wolf management plan to address issues like the illegal killing of wolf, the threat to hunting dogs and to increase social acceptance of wolf, it is imperative that they use the right arguments and science to substantiate the use of derogations.

For the European Commission, there are two important steps. First, it is crucial that the current infringement procedure against Sweden’s approach to wolf conservation and management is closed. Furthermore, the European Commission’s existing guidance document on species protection (large carnivores), which is currently being updated, must now firmly stress that improving social acceptance and decreasing illegal killing can be a justification for limited and strictly controlled hunts. In a previous draft, the Commission provided a stricter interpretation of the Habitats Directive, which was highly criticised by some stakeholders, members of the European Parliament and EU Member States.

This was also echoed recently by a joint declaration of ministers of Denmark, Estonia, France, Italy and Latvia on wolf management during the Agriculture and Fisheries Council of 14 October, taking place in Luxembourg. The ministers made their position on the guidance document clear:
“Express deep concern about the draft revised Guidance document on the strict protection of species (…) which shows a stricter interpretation of the Habitat Directive, especially its Article 16, than in the previous Guidance document. These changes threaten the possibilities for Member States to adequately manage wolf populations. Additional flexibility is clearly needed for Member States so that they adapt their practices to local realities and fully address social, cultural and economic issues.”

FACE is working with its members and network to ensure that the final version of the guidance document is in line with the Habitats Directive and relevant jurisprudence. It is not yet clear when the updating process will start again and when it can be expected to be finalised.

Please find the judgement of the ECJ here.

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