Wolves On The Rise in Germany: Prefer Military Training Areas to “Protected” Areas

Wolf pups in Neuhaus, Lower Saxony, on Saturday. Photo: DPA

New Scientist covered this story, which relates to the discussions we’ve been having about Wilderness Xtreme and Wilderness Lite. It also causes me to reflect on the distinction between “ideas about things” e.g. Wilderness in the US, and “things” e.g. wolves and their behavior, and the fact that creatures (including humans) don’t always behave as academics predict. It’s all pretty interesting, and I bolded the quotes I thought to be particularly relevant.

In the 1980s, wolves started returning Germany, mostly from Poland. “We were expecting that the large forest areas northeast of Berlin would be the first place settled by the wolves, because it is close to Poland and has dense forest,” says Ilka Reinhardt at Goethe-University Frankfurt.

But she and her colleagues have now analysed data from national surveys of wolf populations, and found that the first wolf colonies established themselves in Saxony, to the south of Berlin, on military training areas. This land isn’t open to the public, though there are no fences stopping people from entering.

With their dense forest cover and low density of roads, these military areas are a similar habitat to protected natural areas. But the team’s analysis suggests that the military land is in fact better for wolves – the animals died less often from human interactions in these places than they did in land specifically set aside for nature.

“Most of the dead wolves that we find have died in traffic accidents,” Reinhardt says. Though road density is similar in military areas, there may not be as much regular traffic there, she says.

The relative safety of these training areas seems to have helped wolves spread across Germany. Analysing data on wolf distribution collected between 2000 and 2015, the team found that wolves seem to be jumping from one area of military land to another, sometimes moving through and beyond other protected areas before establishing a territory.

Over 15 years, they found that wolves went from one established mating pair to 67 pairs across the whole country, with the population growing exponentially. By 2015, wolves had populated 62 per cent of the military training areas larger than 30 square kilometres, and only 14 per cent of similarly sized protected areas.

While it may seem like tanks and wolves make strange bedfellows, similar trends can be seen in other countries. “Something we see in our work in California is that lots of areas that have destructive processes happening, like logging, can be really important core habitats for large carnivores – here, it’s mountain lions,” says Justine Smith at the University of California Berkeley.


Many species are more afraid of humans than they are of our associated machinery like cars or even tanks, she adds. Recreational activities are often promoted on protected lands, while the public has very little access to military land.

“I think what might be going on is that in many parts of the world, protected areas are built in places that have a lot of people already. Or they can attract people to live near them because of the benefits they provide,” she says.

So the relative solitude of a military training ground may be what the wolves prefer. The routine of a military schedule could help as well. “There is some shooting, but it’s always in the same areas and it’s usually during the workday, so the animals can get used to it,” says Reinhardt.

Smith says conservationists could work with federal governments to optimise these lands even more by limiting light or noise pollution at night.

Here’s another news story about wolves in Germany.

11 thoughts on “Wolves On The Rise in Germany: Prefer Military Training Areas to “Protected” Areas”

  1. An important piece of information that’s missing from this is hunting practices. I would assume that, in Germany as here, most “protected” areas feature men with guns and traps killing animals for most of the year — and not just large quadrupeds for food, but carnivores of all sizes, small and medium-sized non-carnivorous mammals, and waterfowl and ground birds. (And as noted in the German-source story, one-tenth of the country’s wolves are illegally killed every year anyways.)

    In which case the wolves’ preference for military vs. so-called protected areas isn’t particularly surprising, and it really underscores just what “protected” means.

    If that’s not the case, though, and wolves prefer military areas over recreational areas despite the lack of hunting in the latter … that would be interesting.

    Also quite curious to see how tensions between pro- and anti- wolf coexistence forces play out in Germany. The article mentions how anti-wolf has become a right-wing position, as is the case in North America, where the issue both reflects and symbolizes deeper demographic and political dynamics. One hopes Germany does a better job than we have, but somehow I’m not optimistic.

    • Going back to our big W wilderness in the US, that seems that that would be argument for Wilderness Xtreme with no hunting if you are interested in protecting wildlife as a fundamental goal of Wilderness.

      Do we know whether mountain bikes are more disruptive to say, elk, than being shot at? Note: I am not making an argument for allowing mountain bikes in Wilderness, I’m just saying that kicking them out of an area due to wildlife concerns, or “general betterness of Wilderness” raises the question “why not kick everyone out with an impact on wildlife?”

      Here’s a link to their paper. Open Access.. yay!

      BTW, a co-founder of The Smokey Wire, Martin Nie of the University of Montana, wrote an excellent IMHO book on the politics and sociology of wolf management and how different it is within different parts of the US (!) in 2003. Here is a link.

      • I’m not a fan of hunting in general, but there are particular types — ethical elk or deer hunting which is about putting food on the table, and conducted with humility and respect — that I can accept and even respect.

        I’d like to see a Wilderness designation permitting that kind of hunting, but no sport killing or trapping. So basically something in between National Park status and present wilderness/sanctuary/other public land designations.

        When no hunting at all is permitted, this to me isn’t “Wilderness Xtreme” — it’s basically National Park-style management.

        I don’t know if I’d say that protecting wildlife is a fundamental goal of wilderness. Rather, I think respecting other lives — and not killing living beings for fun — is an ethic that should guide our actions everywhere, and wilderness is one setting for it. This might sound like hair-splitting, but to make an analogy: assaulting someone in a public park (of the neighborhood variety, with swings and a baseball diamond and picnic benches) is illegal, but that doesn’t mean protecting people is the *goal* of the park. It’s just how people are expected to behave.

        Of course the politics and sociology are tricky as all heck … and there’s always the danger of animal advocates being heavy-handed in a way that ends up with resentful men showing their displeasure by stringing animals on fenceposts. But it seems that management is bending this way a little bit, at least, as sport-killing contests are prohibited on public land in some states.

  2. Speaking from two plus decades of work on DOD and DOE lands (most of which allow hunting), wildlife populations particularly fire-adapted species thrive on DOD lands when compared to USFS and NPS. Outside of hunting season, wildlife is left alone, there is plenty of edge, plenty of early successional habitat. And relative to T&E species, an honest attempt to have and grow more while accomplishing the military mission and getting the cut out (most DOD forestry shops are funded off their revenue). I suspect in Germany, it might be a bit different – off base, the land is either intensive ag, intensive conifer plantation or urban, so not much for a wolf. But still a contrast and still protected from being harried/harassed.

  3. We were just having a discussion tonight wondering about when will the wolves make it to our area. I guess one was found not to far south of us here in Southern Oregon. As we talked I noticed 4 deer in the field across the road. This lead us to mention how we see so much more wildlife down in the valleys, which are fairly sparsely inhabited but intensely managed, then we ever see on FS land or other “wild” reserves.
    With grandkids running around and new calves in the field I hope the wolves take their time arriving.
    I wouldn’t of minded either if they would of left the 30,000 acres around the devil staircase alone instead of “making” it a new “Wilderness” area. I guess they had to give the environmentalists something. To bad for Mapleton.

  4. Logging – When you’re talking about large carnivores, presence or absence of trees isn’t often a big factor. “Most of the dead wolves that we find have died in traffic accidents,” Reinhardt says, so we should be looking at improving connectivity with adaptive road structures. (And not shooting or trapping them is also important.)

    Lynx would be a North American exception, because of its dependence on snowshoe hares, which do depend on dense vegetation. Logging has also been a problem for many species other than large carnivores, from ivory-billed woodpeckers to spotted owls to salmon to mountain caribou to fisher.

    • I wonder if infrastructure corridors — transmission lines, pipelines, that sort of thing — could be more explicitly managed with dense early-succession vegetation in mind. In a lot of places those corridors are among the last significant shrubby habitats left.

  5. Fisher? Logging really? You western types make me chuckle. West Virginia cuts 1.5 bft/year and fishers thrive in the Allegheny counties. Fishers blow in the west because the land is so unproductive.

  6. Yep, prey density in a central Appalchian hardwood forest, even high graded on 10 year cycles, is way higher than most of the Montana conifers in the west.


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