When the very existence of lynx, wolves, golden jackals, eagles, and Eurasian eagle-owls comes into question
On the 28th of November 2021, the people of the Canton of Valais in Switzerland will vote for or against a popular initiative titled “For a canton of Valais without large predators”. The initiative was submitted to the State Chancellery on 16 January 2017, along with 9545 signatures. The initiative claims three aims:
- improved protection of livestock from large predators (wolves, lynx, bears and golden jackals)
- to limit and regulate the number of large predators
- to prohibit the expansion of the population of predators
While this initiative is largely focused on lynx, wolves, bears and golden jackals, a great many other species will be targeted including golden eagles and Eurasian eagle-owls. In 2018, census data showed that there were only 65 breeding pairs of golden eagles and 12-15 breeding pairs of Eurasian eagle-owls in the canton of Valais.
The wildlife in question
Wolves and lynx are both top predators, with an important ecological role, contributing to the health and functioning of ecosystems. Both predators help regulate the density of wild ungulates such as roe deer, red deer, chamois, and wild boar. They have the ability to influence the population sizes and distribution of prey and contributing to improving the health of these prey populations through selective predation.
Because wolves and lynx have very large area requirements, they occur at low densities and their populations tend to spread over very large areas, across several administrative borders, both within and between countries. It is vital for these countries to work together with consistent and coordinated conservation measures for an optimal persistence of wolves, lynx and bears in their range.
Wolves are legally protected in the European Union by the Bern Convention and by the EU Habitats Directive (Council Directive 92/43/EEC) and three other international agreements. Lynx also enjoy a protected status in the European Union by the Bern Convention, the EU Habitats Directive (Council Directive 92/43/EEC), CITES and other international agreements. Bears are protected under Swiss law, as well as under the 1979 Berne Convention on the Conservation of the European Wildlife and Natural Habitats and other international agreements. Golden jackals are mentioned in the EU Habitats Directive (Council Directive 92/43/EEC) but receive no other special protective status.
Hunting in Switzerland
In the 19th century, regulated and unregulated hunting led to the extirpation of large wildlife in central Europe and Switzerland. This affected species such as the wolf, lynx, bears, red deer, roe deer, ibex, and wild boar. In the late 19th and throughout the 20th century, the restoration of forests and natural habitats enabled a reintroduction of many species, that were now supported by a revision of the legal status of wildlife. Populations recovered and returned to the Swiss landscape. Today, hunting continues to be a part of Swiss society and in most cantons keeps herbivore populations under control.
The Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN) is responsible for all federal legislation related to hunting. Hunting is regulated on a local level with each canton having the power to issue its own laws, determine dates of hunting season and issuing hunting permits and licences. There are different types of hunting in Switzerland.
Hunting in a designated area: In this case, hunting rights are leased by the canton as individual hunting grounds, usually for eight years. In cantons such as Aargau, Lucerne and St. Gallen, hunting in a designated area is predominant.
Patent hunting: In this type of hunting, the permit is valid throughout the entire cantonal territory, and the species and number individuals the hunter may kill are specified. Patent hunting is dominant in Graubünden, Jura, Ticino and Appenzell.
State hunting: State-employed gamekeepers carry out this role. Private hunters have no hunting rights in cantons with state hunting. This regulation applies only to the canton of Geneva as hunting has been banned in Geneva canton since 1974. The following tasks linked to this specific type of hunting include:
- Promotion and preservation of wild-living animals
- Preservation of their habitats
- Practice of hunting that is sustainable and appropriate to the needs of the animals
Where the predator populations are low, herbivores tend to cause damage to vegetation especially the young buds and leaves, preventing shrubs and trees from growing. In recent years in some areas, the quotas designated for hunters are not fulfilled and consequently a cull of herbivores may be completed by the game wardens.
Predators are not on Earth just to inconvenience a subset of humans. Each predatory species plays a unique and important role in the ecological realm. One of the most quoted examples of the importance of predators for the health of an ecosystem is that of the wolves in Yellowstone. In the 1930s the wolf population in the Yellowstone National Park was extirpated, leading to a sharp increase in the elk population. While this may seem like a trivial issue, the lack of predators meant that the elks were remaining in one area and decimating the vegetation. Willow, one of the key species for beavers were intensively browsed and no longer available to them and with a decrease in beaver dams, the riverbanks started eroding. Other species like aspen and cottonwood which were important for songbirds were also browsed intensively leading to a decrease in the songbird population. Even fresh-water fish were not spared; the lack of vegetation on the riverbanks resulted in less shade and water temperatures were too high for some cold-water fish species. The degraded ecosystem was felt at all levels and in 1995, the first wolf reintroduction was carried out. The transformation of the landscape an ecosystem occurred rapidly. The predator-prey complex between wolf and elk was re-established; within the first ten years, the willow population was restored and in the following ten years the aspen and other vegetation recovered. As the vegetation and health of the ecosystem improved, the area saw the re-emergence of populations of songbirds, beavers, eagles, foxes, badgers and many other species. This balancing out of the habitat and ecosystem in general was only possible with the return of the wolves.
The great disloyalty: “a good lynx is a dead lynx”
The Canton of Valais has long had a reputation of being disloyal to the democratically guided Federal regulations”. Researchers closely following the development of the lynx population in Switzerland, noticed a clear reduced population of these felids in the Canton of Valais. Rampant poaching of predators was determined to occur in the canton. In 2020 three State-employed wildlife wardens were accused of killing a lynx as well as encouraging others to kill this nationally protected species. According to research by the University of Bern, Valais has only 12-20% of the actual lynx population that it could actually sustain. According to (scientifically unsubstantiated) claims by some officials in the Canton of Valais:
- Wolves were illegally reintroduced in Switzerland
- Wolves no longer have a place in our heavily populated landscape
- Wolves are responsible for the disappearance of certain ungulate species.
- Our wolves are not real wolves, but hybrids.
As with every voting round, the Swiss people are given suggestions on how to vote; this is the position of the Right-Wing party UDC Romand Valais:
Cantonal vote "For a canton of Valais without large predators": “The UDCVR recommends a YES vote. We have long considered that the competence to regulate large predators should lie with the cantons. If this initiative cannot unfortunately achieve this goal, it at least sends a positive signal by showing that the Valais is concerned about the explosion in the number of wolves and their impact on livestock farming activities as well as the dangers for the population.”
Tax and subsidies in the Swiss Confederation
Although many voices in the Canton of Valais are eager to get rid of predators, we must not forget that the Canton forms part of the Swiss Confederation.
One of the main topics about the return of predators is the damage caused to livestock. Sheep and goat farming is currently not a profitable activity in Switzerland. Many farmers find it expensive to introduce protective measures that will effectively deter predatory attacks. The state introduced subsidies for farmers to use electric fencing, shepherds, trained dogs, and other methods to protect the flocks as well as reduce the retaliatory attacks on carnivores. It is important to remember that these methods were used by many generations previously before wolves and lynx were eliminated from the Swiss landscape.
Each of the 26 cantons in Switzerland has its own tax law. According to the Swiss Tax System 2019, “federalism is one of the fundamental principles of the Swiss Constitution”. In order to reduce disparities and boost financial autonomy, a revised “national fiscal equalization” system was put in place in 2008. Valais is classified as one of the financially weak cantons, relying on this fiscal equalization.
Switzerland is home to some of Europe’s most charismatic predators including lynx, wolves, golden jackals, bears (sometimes) as well as a great many raptors and small predators. Each species has an important role to play and the removal of any one of them could have serious cascading implications in the ecosystem. There are about 250 lynx and 110 wolves (including nine packs) in Switzerland. Both species are protected even though poaching of both species is rampant.
Swiss people are no stranger to voting about hunting topics especially relating to predators. On 27 September 2019, the Swiss Parliament passed an amendment to the “Swiss Federal Law on Hunting and the Protection of Indigenous Mammals and Birds”. The new law would have meant that protected species such as lynx, wolves, beavers, and grey herons could be shot simply because they exist. On 27 September 2020, Swiss voters rejected the hunting law by 51.9 per cent effectively saying “no” to the elimination of species simply because one part of the population were inconvenienced by them.
Finally, all wild animals may be territorial within their species but are not bound by human fences and national jurisdictional boundaries. Young lynx and wolf leave their parents’ territory to establish new ones and can travel long distances to find suitable habitats with sufficient prey, water and shelter. Expecting wildlife to stop all movements at the boundaries of a canton is absurd beyond measure.
KORA Foundation 2020. 25 years of wolf presence in Switzerland: an interim assessment. KORA Report Nr. 91e, 80 pp.