Europe: Return of the carnivores!

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Europe: Return of the carnivores!
A Eurasian lynx with a thick fur coat perches on a mossy, downed tree trunk, gazing toward a distant object, looking ready to strike.
The Eurasian lynx is Europe’s largest cat. The new study finds them abundant in Finland, Sweden and Norway, the Baltics, Balkans and Romania.
Copyright: Miha Krofel, Slovenia

A surprising new study shows that four big carnivores (brown bear, lynx, wolverine and wolf) are doing quite nicely in Europe, thank you very much, even without the wilderness protection that benefits some large predators in the United States.

“We find that in Europe we have twice as many wolves as in the lower 48 (American) states, on half the land area, with two times the human population density,” says Guillaume Chapron of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, the corresponding author of the new study.

In Europe, as in North America, large carnivores face ingrained hostility. It’s not just their ferocity, but also their need for a large range and lots of meat that makes them natural competitors.

Photo of two fuzzy wolf pups standing in the sun in a grassy opening
Wolf pups photographed in front of their den in western Poland.
Credit: Robert W. Myslajek

Add it up, and both Europe and the United States had severe losses of carnivore populations by the 1960s.

Wilderness reserves and national parks in North America are intended to separate animals from people, but the new study points to other ways to ensure predator survival. “If we had followed the North American model of wilderness in Europe, we would not have predators, because in Europe everything is developed, we have roads everywhere,” Chapron says.

The study, “shows that this coexistence, this ‘land sharing,’ does not just work in a particular context, it is working on a continental scale,” says Chapron. “It’s possible to have predators living in a human-dominated landscape, and this is unexpected.”

Predator stomping grounds
Four maps showing the spread of large carnivores across Europe, with images of a bear, wolf, lynx and wolverine. Bears, lynx and wolverines appear concentrated in Fennoscandinavia, and wolves reside primarily across the Balkan countries and eastern Europe.
Location of bear, wolf, lynx and wolverine populations across Europe between 2010 and 2012; permanent populations shown in dark orange, and occasional sightings shown in light orange.

The 1970s: A turnaround

Photo of a wolverine standing on an overturned tree near a pond with lily pads.
Wolverines are adapted to living in the snow. This one is near a pond in Finland.

The same environmental awareness that sparked the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in the United States in the 1970s also affected Europe, Chapron says. “In Europe … we have our own ESA and habitat directives that protect wildlife and wildlife habitat.” Member states of the European Union are obligated to restore wildlife populations and habitat, he says. “The willingness of society to have a good relationship with wildlife has been a key reason why this has turned into a success story.”

Photo of three wolves greeting one another in a forest opening. Wolves do eat livestock, and in Europe (much as in the United States), problem wolves can be shot even though they are protected.
Highly intelligent and cooperative, the wolf pack forms a hunting machine with a large territory.
Copyright: Miha Krofel, Slovenia

Of the four predators, the oft-feared wolf has staged the most dramatic recovery, Chapron says. Since the 1950s and ’60s, wolves have become more numerous in Finland and Poland, and breeding populations have returned to Sweden, France, Germany and Norway. “The wolf was never deliberately reintroduced in Europe,” Chapron says. “The wolf has done all of this naturally.”

The territory of European wolves has, on average, 37 people per square kilometer. (That’s 103 per square mile, or about the same density as the state of Alabama.) “That clearly shows the wolf can live in places with people; they don’t need a totally empty landscape,” Chapron says.

Although the findings are encouraging for those who see predators as necessary to a healthy ecosystem, “This coexistence is not a peaceful love story,” says Chapron. “With carnivores, there will always be conflicts. They are big, they eat the wrong type of meat, including meat we would like to eat. The goal is not to have no conflict at all, because I don’t think that’s possible.”

– David J. Tenenbaum

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Kevin Barrett, project assistant; Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David J. Tenenbaum, feature writer


  1. Recovery of large carnivores in Europe’s modern human-dominated landscapes, Guillaume Chapron et al, Science, 19 December 2014.
  2. Europe’s large carnivore initiative webpage.
  3. The status of large carnivores in Europe, 2013.
  4. Why should we care about carnivores in North America?