In a landmark decision, the European Court of Justice has ruled that wolves in the European Union cannot be hunted and killed unless Member States have proved that there is no viable alternative to lethal wolf population management.

“This is a life-saving decision for Europe’s wolves and a pivotal moment for Europe’s highest court to rule in their favour. There have been increasing and persistent calls from the farming and hunting lobbies to remove EU protections for wolves and other large carnivores so that they can be hunted. These species, which were completely extirpated in many parts of Europe, are only now finally recovering from past persecution, and recolonising their former domains, thanks to EU Habitats Directive protections. This decision by the ECJ makes it very clear that killing these protected animals should only ever be a last resort when all other preventative measures have failed,” said Dr Jo Swabe, Senior Director of Public Affairs at Humane Society International/Europe.

Humane Society International/Europe has hailed the ruling as life-saving for wolves and other large carnivores such as bears and lynx who are threatened by habitat loss, lack of social acceptance, and direct persecution and poaching.

“The European Commission has consistently maintained that the EU Habitats Directive is fit for purpose and merely requires better implementation by Member States. Indeed, HSI/Europe applauds that fact that Virginijus Sinkevičius, Commissioner Designate for Environment and Oceans, strongly reiterated this position during his recent Parliamentary hearing. HSI/Europe believes that the ECJ ruling should help both the Commission and Member States to ensure that the Directive is implemented properly, with derogations from full protection being the exception, not the rule.”

The Finnish wolves

Case C-674/17 was brought by Finnish nature organisations following a decision by the Finnish authorities to allow seven wolves to be killed to prevent nuisance and poaching. The goal of the legal action was to provide clarification on under what circumstances derogations to the EU Habitats Directive could be granted with respect to the killing of wolves for population management purposes.

According to Article 16 of Council Directive 92/43/EEC (the EU Habitats Directive), derogations can be triggered by Member States to allow management control at the national level provided there is “no satisfactory alternative and the derogation is not harmful to the maintenance of the populations of the species concerned.”

These exceptions for employing lethal control are meant to stop “serious damage” to livestock and crops, protect the public’s health and safety or for research and education.

The ECJ ruling laid out the strict criteria for the use of derogations to hunt species protected under the Habitats Directive for population management purposes; that the Court had serious doubts about whether the Finnish government had provided sufficient evidence to support the use of a derogation to allow hunting of wolves in order to prevent poaching, and that it did not establish that alternatives to hunting may exist that could serve as solutions to preventing poaching.

The Court also stated that it must be guaranteed that the derogations will not harm the conservation status of the species, for which assessments of the conservation status and potential impact of derogations on the species populations would be required, and based on such an assessment, derogations would be limited to a specific number of individuals, under strict monitoring.

The case will now return to the Supreme Administrative Court of Finland for a final judgement.