Wolves in northeastern Poland's Podlaskie Voivodeship. Photo by Lilly M / Wikimedia Commons.

Nearly eradicated decades ago, the wolf is today an emblem of successful human-predator coexistence in Poland.

The wolf automatically arouses fear. No other animal evokes so many emotions. At the same time, as ultimate predators, wolves are an indispensable part of the Polish ecosystem.

By the early 1970s, almost no large predators still lived in Poland. The lynx had been classified as a game species several years earlier. Only a dozen or so lynx survived in the Carpathian Mountains and the northeast forests. The wolf population fell to as few as 60 individuals.

The return of large carnivores is a story not just about the beauty of nature. It is also a story about a genuine conflict with humans, the hunting economy, and animal husbandry. Crucial decisions about the environment are being made today. The existence of wolves or bears is possible only if we do not exceed the acceptable level of damage.

By the mid-1970s, Canis lupus was one step away from extinction in the Polish forests. Twenty years earlier, in 1955, the government issued a resolution on the extermination of the wolf, treating the country’s largest predator as a pest. Hunters were paid a bounty of 500 zlotys – nearly half the average industrial monthly wage at the time – for each wolf killed during collective hunts. Wolves were legally shot, poisoned, and trapped, and their pups were taken from dens. The bounty for a pup was 200 zlotys. 

Mass hunting ended only in 1975, when the estimated wolf population was a mere 200. Wolves were recategorized as a game animal and hunting allowed only in spring and summer in most regions. 

Today, wolves in Poland are fully protected. According to some studies, 3,000 wolves live here. Along with Spain and Romania, Poland has one of the largest wolf populations in Europe. 

A Widening Circle of Protection

The critical change from game animal to protected species took place gradually. It began with the Polish transformation in 1989.  Krzysztof Niedzialkowski and Renata Putkowska-Smoter of the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the Polish Academy of Sciences have argued that the new political system, market liberalization, and especially decentralization underpinned the changed approach towards wolves and the natural world.

“Activists and wildlife biologists took advantage of this opportunity and, through skillful strategic activities oriented at undermining old institutions and creating new ones, managed to induce the government to implement a new policy paradigm,” they wrote last year in the open-access science journal Plos One.

A 1991 law gave the voivodes, or regional governors, greater authority to enforce protection of a given species. A year later, three voivodeships in western Poland granted protection to the wolf, opening the way for the species to start recolonizing the west.

Niedzialkowski and Putkowska-Smoter underline the role of non-governmental organizations: “In the early 1990s, NGOs enjoyed great public trust. They also had international contacts and support; they became more and more professional and cooperated with the experts.” 

Two groups – Pracownia na Rzecz Wszystkich Istot (Workshop for All Forms of Life) and the Association for Nature Wolf – played a crucial role in the debate on wolves. “It was a step-by-step process,” explains scientist Sabina Nowak, co-founder of the Association for Nature Wolf.

In 1995, wolf protection became mandatory across Poland except in three far-eastern voivodeships with large wolf populations. Each of these steps was met with resistance, especially among hunters. After all, there were parliamentary terms when every sixth member of Poland’s parliament was a hunter. Conservationists finally achieved their goal when wolves were removed from the category of game animals in 1998.

That decision would not have been possible without the work of scientists from the Mammal Research Institute of the Polish Academy of Sciences in the village of Bialowieza, Niedzialkowski and Putkowska-Smoter explain. The institute’s research resulted in more accurate estimates of the wolf population and demonstrated the essential role large predators play in ecosystems.

One Wolf, Two Wolves

Sabina Nowak and Robert Myslajek, another co-founder of the Wolf Association, are showing me what telemetry technology is all about. We climb into a gray pickup truck and drive down a forest road to Roztocze National Park in southeastern Poland. He drives; she sits in the backseat, presses an earphone to her ear, and holds an antenna in her other hand. When she hears the characteristic “beep,” it means that one of the wolves they have collared must be within several hundred meters.

GPS tracking collars have a useful life of up to[Jeremy Dr5]  two years, Myslajek says. “They cost a lot, but the data they provide is vital for the knowledge and protection of this species.”

The importance of monitoring the wolf population is also emphasized by Henryk Okarma, former director of the Institute of Nature Conservation in Krakow, a unit of the Polish Academy of Sciences.

“Adequate monitoring is the key. Without it, we try to manage a resource not knowing how many resources we have. As if a factory manager did not know how many cars the factory is producing.”

The wolf is a challenging species to monitor. They live in family groups (a more descriptive term than the usual “pack”) comprising a breeding pair and their pups from the last two, sometimes three years – typically six or seven individuals. The group moves around a territory of 200-300 square kilometers. Adolescent wolves split off from the pack and search for their own territory, sometimes covering hundreds of kilometers.

Several methods must be used to monitor the wolf population. In 2018, a count commissioned by the General Directorate for Environmental Protection came up with the figure of 1,886 wolves in Poland. Even this study is subject to large errors, and it tells us little about the behavior of the species.

Fresh wolf tracks on a road in the Bialowieza Forest. Photo by Frank Vassen / Wikimedia Commons.

Myslajek stops the car at a crossroads. He shows me some paw tracks – wolves like to use such forest roads. Meanwhile, Nowak takes a memory card out of a photo trap hanging on a tree. Cameras set up in the forest allow scientists to see the wolves.  Moments later, we watch video of a running wolf. Scientists instantly recognize “their” wolves.

Genetics is also an essential tool in their research. Scientists collect wolf fur, droppings, and saliva. Myslajek points out a piece of sponge with protruding nails attached to a tree trunk at knee height. When the wolf passes, it rubs against the nails and some fur is caught.

“We work with volunteers all over the country, and we spend a lot of time tracking wolves in the field, collecting feces and other research material,” Myslajek says. Researchers have analyzed more than 3,000 genetic samples collected all over Poland so far.

“Until recently, all information was collected in the field,” and even the quality of  radio telemetry data varied depending on how often researchers went into the field and their effectiveness in tracking wolves, Nowak says, adding, “If the wolf went on a long ramble and left the research area, there was no chance to find it without using a plane.”

Satellite navigation now allows scientists to keep up with the wolf. The first Polish wolves were fitted with GPS collars in 2014. Nowak calls this “an entirely new kind of data. You can see at a glance, for example, whether a breeding pair has cubs in a given season. Parents regularly return to the same place after hunting and bring food to the pups.”

Crucially, GPS tracking made it possible to study wolves’ long journeys to new territory. In 2005, the Mammal Research Institute of the Polish Academy of Sciences, together with the Wolf Association, prepared a map of Polish wildlife corridors – nationwide “highways” for animals that allow them to migrate freely. In 2010, the Environment Ministry began assessing the impact of new infrastructure on Poland’s environment, at a time of rapid expansion of the highway network ahead of the 2012 European football championship co-hosted by Poland and Ukraine. Thanks to the initiative of then-Environment Minister Maciej Nowicki, animal overpasses were built over new roads, and most of the wildlife corridors were maintained. This proved crucial for the return of the wolf all over Poland.

GPS data confirms that Poland’s system of wildlife corridors works and led to the finding that animals prefer overpasses over roads to narrow tunnels under them, according to Myslajek.

The Rebound

The cooperation of scientists, activists, and the favorable political situation brought a positive effect. Almost all large predators in Poland have benefited from new technologies and policies such as the maintenance of wildlife corridors. Since 2000, according to government statistics, the bear population has increased by 148 percent, the lynx population by 50 percent, and the wolf population by 164 percent.

“Nobody brought wolves here and secretly let them out, as hunters often say,” Nowak stresses. “Without human intervention, wolves recolonized central and western Poland within a few years.”

Poland’s total ban on wolf hunting with such a large population is an exception in Europe, and the methods of mitigating human-animal conflict are still being refined. In 1997, before the introduction of wolf protection, a system of compensation for damage caused by protected species was established. Today, compensation applies to five species: European bison, beaver, lynx, bear, and wolf.

In 2019, the state paid 1.15 million zlotys ($300,000) in compensation for damage caused by wolves, mainly sheep and calves killed. Of all five species, wolves account for just 4 percent of the damage. Almost 90 percent is due to the activity of beavers, and more significant losses are also caused by European bison living in a few small areas.

That is small consolation for cattle and sheep farmers who share territory with wolves.

As much as 85 percent of compensation for damage caused by wolves is paid in four voivodeships: Podkarpackie and Malopolskie in southeastern Poland, and Podlaskie and Warminsko-Mazurskie in the northeast. The loudest complaints typically come from farmers in the Bieszczady Mountains in the country’s far southeastern bump. They can recover the cost of killed animals but the payments do not compensate for the stress inflicted on the rest of the herd, they argue.

Dries Kuijper, an associate professor of population ecology at the Mammal Research Institute in Bialowieza, explains. 

Wolves traveling in search of new homes are the most troublesome, he says. “When they are alone, they choose easy prey, often sheep. Wolves with established territory rarely hunt livestock. Electric fences and fladry [strips of fabric or flags on a fence] reduce the risk of a wolf attack a lot, although nothing can guarantee complete security.”

Aside from the loss of livestock in the Bieszczady Mountains, local wolves are often fed by tourists or even lured by nature photographers. As a result, wolves often associate people with a food source, and it often ends badly for farm animals and the wolves themselves. One local breeder, Andrzej Lenart, lost several dozen sheep in two years. In an interview for the Dziennik Lodzki[Jeremy Dr8]  newspaper, he said the methods of deterrence are often ineffective: “I sit with my dog at one end of the herd, and at the other end, the wolves murder my sheep. … I bought a trumpet as a deterrent. It is so loud that it can be heard in neighboring villages. And now I think that when I blow it, it is like inviting the wolves to a meal. So much for deterrence.”

Overall, though, the scale of the problem is manageable. Livestock accounts for only 2–3 percent of the overall food weight eaten by wolves. Only 15 percent of wolf packs kill more than five livestock animals a year. Overall, wolves kill about 1,000 head of livestock each year.

“A large farm, where the animals are properly secured, will do well without significant losses. On the other hand, a few sheep or goats kept without any protection by someone just because there is a meadow near the house, or as an attraction for the agrotourism guests, can quickly become prey for wolves,” Nowak says.

First Enemy, First Friend

The growing number of wolves and their proximity automatically makes us feel afraid. The range of emotions aroused by the wolf can even be traced in the language we use. While a bear or lynx usually “walks,” the wolf “prowls.” The image of a bloodthirsty, dangerous predator has taken hold in our minds.

“It is one of the oldest human atavisms,” says Kuba Jurowicz, a hunter from Nowy Sacz. “We have always been afraid of the wolf; we have fought with the wolf. And paradoxically, our first animal friend was the wolf.”

Statistically, a much more significant threat to humans than wolves is posed by its descendants – domestic dogs. Bears also attack people more often. Attacks on humans by healthy wolves since World War II can be counted on one hand. The last occurred in 2018, with no severe consequences, and the wolves were shot immediately. The previous case of aggression, in 2004, involved a rabid wolf that chased tourists in the Bieszczady Mountains and bit the tires of the car where they took shelter.

A wolf in Podlaskie Voivodeship. Photo by Lilly M / Wikimedia Commons.

“For many people, shooting a troublesome wolf is something they cannot imagine,”Myslajek says. “From the perspective of a big-city resident, it is easy to treat these animals too emotionally. Unfortunately, in the real world, you must solve real problems, for example, that such a wolf fed or tamed by people can bite someone.”

The General Directorate for Environmental Protection (GDOS) oversees the culling of  problematic  wolves. Each year around five or six aggressive wolves are shot if less drastic measures fail.

“The law says that killing occurs when there are no other alternatives and the wolf causes real, lasting problems,” Kuijper explains. “So, a wolf that attacks one sheep or wanders in the village does not have to be shot immediately. Often, they are young males searching for territory and end up in very inappropriate places. And then they go on, and the problem disappears.”

The Conditions of Coexistence

With such a large population of predators, some conflict situations cannot be avoided. Appeals to reduce the wolf population are often made, especially in the Bieszczady Mountains. Scientists cannot reach a consensus on the question of culling. Nowak and Myslajek defend the strict protection of the wolf. Okarma, the former director of the Institute of Nature Conservation, tilts to the demands of farmers and breeders.

“Encounters between people and the wolves are more and more frequent. We try to coexist, but instead of pushing the wolf away from us, we want to change ourselves. We introduce more and more effective methods of animal protection and better education. But that is not enough. For me, compromise means the acceptance that not every wolf is equally valuable. A wolf that feeds on farm animals or roams the landfills or interbreeds with a domestic dog does not benefit the rest of the population,” he says.

From the very beginning, hunters strongly resisted the strict protection of wolves. There are many reasons to permit limited hunting, Jurowicz argues.

“Gaining trophies is one reason, although the times when we hunted for impressive skins and the most beautiful antlers are long gone. Or at least I hope they are.”

He says he is amused by the “fairy tale” that wolves compete with humans. “However, it’s true that the wolf does not quite fit into the pattern of the hunting economy. If we treat our country as a farm where wild animals are bred, everything should run like clockwork. A large predator rules that out. Wolves don’t read the game laws. Hunters do not treat wolves as competitors but rather as an element that, without any control, disturbs the planned and deliberate system of the hunting economy.”

He favors the return of legal wolf hunting.

“Right now, many of us think that the wolf population is too big. We are unique in Europe. Hunts to control the population size take place not only in Spain and Romania, which have the largest populations of wolves, but also in Slovakia for example.”

Unfortunately, nowadays, even despite the full protection, wolves are sometimes illegally killed by hunters. In 2019, Kosy, the most famous wolf in Roztocze National Park, was shot from a hunting blind. In early December 2020, a wolf killed by hunters was found several hundred meters from the boundary of Biebrza National Park, near the border with Belarus.

Sabina Nowak explains how she tracks illegal wolf kills.

“Every morning, I turn on my laptop and see on the map where [the wolves] were and what they were doing. And if data transmission suddenly stops and the last bearing is from a field surrounded by hunting blinds, and when we go there, we see a track that suddenly ends under the hunting blind, it is immediately clear what happened.”

Henryk Okarma is a hunter himself. “We know that wolves are poached. The scale of that is unknown. If someone has a gun and hates these predators, he will shoot them.”

“I think the reason is often some sense of the mission of defending humanity against the wolf,” Jurowicz says. “I want to believe that none of my fellow hunters does that.”

“Hunting seems like a simple answer, it would give people a sense of control, but it can have a negative impact,” Kuijper says. “By shooting wolves, we break up family groups, and this means that lone wolves can create many more problems and kill more farm animals. The American experience also shows that it does not reduce the scale of poaching, quite the opposite.”

Why Do We Need the Wolf?

From the perspective of conservation biology, that is a meaningless question. Nature does not exist to benefit humans. The wolf does not run in the woods for us; there is no need to convert its value into money. Nevertheless, an apex predator in the ecosystem can help us significantly, for example, to reduce the scale of African swine fever.

“One wolf kills at least 20 boars a year,” Nowak says, surmising that the country’s 2,000 wolves kill and eat 40,000 wild boars a year. To control African swine fever, he says, “the state pays 300 zlotys for each male wild boar and 600 zlotys for a sow. So, the wolves’ work is worth 12 million zlotys. And they do it for free.”

The more we know about wolves, the harder it is to perceive them as pests. Recent studies show they increasingly prey on beavers. In some regions, beavers make up some 20 percent of the total wolf diet. Although beavers have a salutary influence on the ecosystem around rivers, the state pays out 25 times as much in compensation for beaver damage compared to that caused by wolves.

Deer, however, are the wolf’s most common prey.

“Were it not for the wolves, there would be 15 percent more ungulates in Bialowieza Forest,” Kuijper says. “The presence of a predator influences the behavior of roe deer and red deer. So-called landscapes of fear arise – these are places potential victims avoid. In these areas, herbivores graze fewer young trees and small plants. This is how wolves stimulate the regeneration of the forest.”

Other factors also affect the population of deer and other ungulates, including an almost unlimited amount of food available on farmland. However, predation by wolves helps control their numbers, and it also has an impact on the state budget. In 2018 alone, the Polish Hunting Association and the governmental State Forests company paid 91 million zlotys ($24 million) in compensation for damage caused by ungulates.

Wolves, as the apex predator, have a massive impact on the entire ecosystem. The remains of their prey feed dozens of other animals, including bears, lynxes, and white-tailed eagles. Stable populations of rare species also mean the potential for the development of ecotourism. It is enough to look at the Bialowieza Forest, where bird-watching tourists alone spend about 9 million zlotys a year.

Redeeming Past Sins

The most famous story of the return of the wolf happened outside Europe. In 1995, a dozen or so specimens imported from Canada were released in Yellowstone National Park. The last wolf naturally inhabiting Yellowstone had been shot nearly 70 years earlier. During that time, the elk population, freed from its natural enemy, dominated the entire ecosystem. Animals grazing young trees deprived Yellowstone of vast stretches of forest, completely changing the national park landscape. Within a dozen or so years, wolves contributed to reducing the number of elk, providing food to many other species and at the same time enabling the restoration of the forests.

“The American model of conservation of this species is based on the complete spatial separation of the wolf and the human being,” Okarma says.

In densely populated Europe, perhaps excepting Scandinavia, such a model is unrealistic. Yellowstone National Park compares in size to Cyprus. Biebrza National Park, the largest in Poland, is over 15 times smaller and could potentially harbor two, possibly three wolf packs.

“The European model shows that peaceful coexistence between man and wolf is possible without spatial separation,” the biologist adds.

Peaceful, though sometimes difficult proximity has marked the return of large predators, one of the greatest successes of Polish nature conservation. Over the last 50 years, the wolf population in Poland has risen 50-fold. That model requires certain concessions, both on the human and the wolf side. It is also not universally applicable. It is hard to imagine such a large wolf population in the densely populated Netherlands, where forests cover only 15 percent of the area (compared to about 30 percent in Poland). 

Likewise, it is unrealistic to fully protect the wolf in the Alps, where cattle and sheep graze freely and without protection on the mountain pastures. In countries where wolves have been eliminated, their return provokes extraordinarily strong social resistance – with Poland as a notable example. Today Poland hosts one of the largest wolf populations in Europe. This was achieved without a single fatal accident involving a wolf.

“Society easily accepts a story like this: we exterminated the wolf, and now we are restoring it,” Okarma sums up.

“And, of course, it is a success. We have saved the top predator in the country. Nevertheless, we are inevitably tempted by the beautiful thought that with the wolf’s return we have rebuilt the primordial environment, the centuries-old ecosystem symbolized by the wolf. We make ourselves feel better because we have the impression that we have redeemed our sins against nature. It is not true.”

Krzysztof Story is a reporter with the Polish magazine Tygodnik Powszechny, covering social and environmental issues. He is a member of the Reporters Foundation, a Polish non-profit journalism training organization. 

This article originally appeared in Tygodnik Powszechny in slightly longer form. Reprinted with permission. Translated by Grzegorz Kurek.