As the number of Italy’s bears and wolves rise, so too do tensions between the country’s provincial and national governments. Over the summer, two councils in the northern mountainous provinces of Trento and Bolzano went rogue. They each passed a bill to legalise the shooting of wolves and bears without first getting permission from at state level. Wolves for their toll on livestock, and bears for ‘their potential danger to humans’. Both animals are nationally protected.
Wolves never quite left Italy. Though almost wiped out by persecution in the 19th and early 20th centuries, a small pocket of 100 or so individuals remained in fragmented habitats in south-central regions where their numbers have grown to approximately 1,600. Brown bears, meanwhile, were made extinct in northern Italy 100 years ago except for a very small population hidden in the Adamella Brenta mountain area in Trentino. Reintroduced in the 1990s, they now number around 50 individuals.
Many Italians feel strongly about maintaining the numbers. Paul Jepson, director of Oxford University’s MSc in Biodiversity explains, ‘two generations have only known bears and wolves as endangered species so its understandable that shooting them seems morally wrong’. However, Jepson also believes reinstating powers to manage their populations ‘could produce better outcomes for both people and wildlife in the long run’. Indeed, Arnold Schuler, one of the Bolzano councillors in favour of the bill, questioned ‘whether the protected status of the wolves is still necessary’.
The environmental backlash has been fierce. Italian animal rights organisation, ENPA, dubbed the bills ‘unacceptable’. Others have targeted their legality. ‘Wildlife is a national issue, not a provincial one,’ says Filippo Favilli, senior researcher at Italy's Institute for Regional Development of Eurac Research, Bolzano. He believes wolves and bears can live alongside farmers, so long as deterrents and prevention strategies are in place. However, he also believes the issue often becomes removed from the wildlife itself. ‘Often it becomes a societal issue instead,’ he says, ‘more than anything, the bills highlight a social urban and rural division in Italy – many farmers feel abandoned by local and national institutions and that the carnivores are prioritised over their livelihoods.’
With Bolzano elections looming, the bills have been accused of being nothing more than political grandstanding. As carnivore numbers recover across the continent, however, wildlife experts anticipate shooting to become a Europe-wide debate. ‘I think there will be more instances of bear shooting in the future,’ predicts Jepson. For wolves, new culls have been proposed in Sweden, France, Slovenia and Norway so far this year.
This was published in the September 2018 edition of Geographical magazine
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