Are they back yet? The discovery of a dead she-wolf in the Netherlands in July has sparked off a debate among conservationists about whether wolves have indeed moved back into the country after more than a century.
The last official sighting of a wolf in the Dutch wilderness was near the town of Heeze, North Brabant, in 1897.
The body of the animal, apparently killed by a car, was found near the small village of Luttelgeest in the northern Netherlands. Back then Faunabeheer Flevoland, a local conservation group, claimed the wolf was probably from Germany or Poland and had been "picked up and dumped" by the roadside as a "joke" by one of the "many" East European agricultural workers in the region. "There could not have been a living one here. No one has come forward because they have hit one, no footprints have been found and a wolf is too shy to come to such a densely populated area," Nettie van den Belt, a spokesman for the group told reporters.
But earlier this month a coalition of Dutch scientific and wildlife groups came together to declare that the wolf had indeed been living in the Netherlands for a while before it was killed.
The female wolf was about one and a half years old and appeared to be in good health, the coalition said in a statement (the statement is in Dutch). It said the body showed no signs of having been transported to the Netherlands post mortem. The body didn’t show any signs of having been frozen and there were no traces of wear on the fur, soles and nails that would indicate captivity, the researchers said.
Wolven in Nederland, a wildlife conservation group which works "to prepare the Netherlands for the expected return of wolves" says the discovery should come as no surprise given the growth of the wolf population in neighboring Germany. “Anatomic study and DNA-samples taken from the dead animal confirm it is unmistakably a European wolf that died because it was hit by a car. Therefore, this animal is the first certain wolf in the Netherlands since 1897,” group spokesperson Leo Linnartz wrote in an email to the Journal.
The researchers say the wolf was originally from eastern Europe, probably from somewhere along the Russian border. They speculate that it might have belonged to a pack that travelled across the Baltic states, eastern Poland and over into Gremany. Wolves can leave their packs travel long distances in search of new territory or a mate. (In the US, wildlife enthusiasts have been tracking the travel of OR7, a male wolf from Oregon who walked across interstate highways and crossed into California in December 2011, becoming the first wolf in California in more than 80 years. OR7 spent a year and three months in California before returning to Oregon in March-April 2013.)
While the Dutch scientists admitted that more research needs to be done on the matter, they believe the discovery of the body is yet another indication that wolves may indeed be roaming the Netherlands countryside. "There's a great possibility that wolves are present in the Netherlands. If one is found then there are more," Geert Groot Bruinderink a researcher with Alterra Wageningen, one of the coalition groups, said during an interview on Dutch television.
Exterminated from northern Europe in the 1800s, wolves have been making a gradual comeback as forest and wildlife conservation polices established in the region in the mid 1900s have begun to bear fruit.
Wolves are known to have lived in Germany for the last 15 years, having migrated from Poland and spread westwards. The top predator’s return to the Dutch countryside was, as Linnartz says, just a matter of time.
There have been numerous unconfirmed reports of wolf sightings in the country in the past few years, especially in eastern Netherlands, along the Dutch-German borders. “Walkers are increasingly telling me that they have seen a wolf. But without a photo there’s no evidence,” Andre Donker, a forest ranger in Drenthe, a northeastern province told The Amsterdam Herald. He said that the remains of a deer found in the Dwingelderveld national park showed signs of having been attacked by a wolf. The Netherlands is bound to be attractive to the wolves, Donker said. “We have an abundance of food, far more than in Germany where there are already whole packs of wolves. We’re stuffed with muskrats, ducks, geese and deer.”
How the return of the wolves will go down with the general Dutch public remains to be seen. While for many the return of the wolf might represent the restoration of a natural order of life, there’s bound to be resistance from farmers, ranchers and hunters. The deep division between the pro-wolf and anti-wolf groups, as we have been witnessing in the US over the past few years, has to do with both culture and economics (Read some our previous reports on the issue here, here, and here.)
During my recent visit to Italy I found these same divisions playing out, but with a rather intriguing twist. More on that in another post next week.