Illegal hunting of wolves is thought to be extensive in Norway, driving down population numbers to perilously low levels.
Now, for the first time, the authorities have prosecuted an alleged hunting team, charging the six men with environmental offences and organised crime, which carries a maximum prison sentence of 11 years. “It’s such a serious offence that we were given almost unlimited investigative powers by the state attorney,” said Tarjei Istad, a prosecutor in the case.
The indictment includes attempted illegal hunting, firearms offences and organised crime. The prosecutor has asked for a five-year ban from hunting, which is something most Norwegians see as a birthright. The defendants are pleading not guilty.
All European countries except the UK and Ireland are believed to have a population of wolves, ranging from the largest, in Spain with an estimated 2,000 animals, to Norway, which has one of the smallest populations, with perhaps as few as 30. The grey wolf is listed by Cites as endangered regionally, though not globally. “This is a question of attitude in certain hunting teams and communities,” said Istad, referring to audio surveillance of the suspects that revealed the suspects allegedly boasting about their hunts. He believes the case is important to get the message across that Norway will not take illegal hunting lightly.
Petter Wabakken, an internationally acclaimed expert on wolves, said: “Our research shows that half of all wolves felled in Norway were killed by poachers,” he said. “This is disturbing, especially considering that we have the smallest wolf population in Europe. Government policy has been to allow three breeding female wolves within an allocated area. This is not enough to sustain a healthy population.”
Norwegians are deeply divided over the management of wolves. Urban communities are generally positive about having large predators in their vicinity, while people in the countryside see them as more of a threat.
Wolves tend to be targeted because of conflicts with human interests, such as competition for game, human safety and depredation of livestock. “We can only conclude that poachers take the law into their own hands. It’s not licensed but illegal hunting that regulates the Norwegian wolf tribe,” Wabakken said.