Sweden caps its population of wolves at 210 animals, allowing for some to be hunted each year. Some argue capping the population - which was once nearly extinct and is now largely inbred - is arbitrary and cruel.
More than 6,700 hunters participated in Sweden's wolf culling
In Sweden's vast, sparsely populated forests, a wolf's howl can be a chilling sound.
The predators have a reputation for killing sheep and reindeer, and are loathed by many in the country, especially farmers. Nevertheless, Sweden extends an uneasy welcome to 210 wolves in the name of biodiversity.
That's less than densely-populated Italy and Spain allow, and the life expectancy for any additional wolves in Sweden can be short. The country allowed hunters to kill 20 this year, flying in the face of the animal's protected status and European Union regulations.
More than 6,700 hunters turned out to cull the wolf population when hunting season opened in the country on January 15. Despite the average Swede's love of nature, the animals have a special place in their collective subconscious.
Centuries-old newspaper reports, literature, folk tales and even Swedish films help to cement fear. One famous silent movie stars a pack of hungry wolves chasing terrified people on a horse-drawn sled over the ice and snow - an event which never took place, but one that is lodged in Swede's consciousness all the same.
Sweden's Environment Minister Andreas Carlgren says the country protects wolves
In 2009, Sweden returned to wolf hunting after a decades-long ban allowed the population to regenerate from near-extinction. Twenty-seven wolves were allowed to be killed in 2010, and the country's policy now foresees 20 wolf packs having 20 pups each year for a period of five years.
While wolves in Sweden today are largely inbred, wildlife biologists disagree over whether initial autopsies of the wolves reveal signs of inbreeding, especially since those culled last year did not.
According to Sweden's Environment Minister Andreas Carlgren, new wolves "of Eastern origin" will be introduced into the population this year for purposes of "genetic enhancement." He added that he is "confident we will be able to dispel the doubts that the (European) Commission has on our wolf policy."
Magnus Blucher, the Swedish Ministry of the Environment's chief legal advisor, told Deutsche Welle the country's wolf policy is "to save the wolves in Sweden, and nothing else."
Sweden's wolves are largely inbred after recovering from near extinction
Court case possible
According to Mikael Karlsson, head of the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation, today's population descends from just three animals. He condemns the culling and welcomes EU action against Sweden.
"We need to increase the number of wolves, and also to make it easier for wolves from the Finnish, Russian population to migrate and breed in new genes," he told Deutsche Welle. "When you kill a high number of individuals of a threatened species, how can you then say you're trying to protect it?"
According to Karlsson, around 1,000 wolves are needed to maintain a healthy, genetically diverse population "at least in the short-term perspective."
"It's a hunt that prevents the favorable conservation status of the Swedish or Scandinavian population, so it's violating EU law, and it's incompatible with Swedish policy on biodiversity set by the parliament," he said.
The European Union has opened an infringement procedure. That could land the case before the European Court of Justice, which has the power to impose fines on member nations.
Sweden has vast, sparsely populated landscapes
Though plenty of hunters were willing to participate in the cull, environmental groups were unsparing in their criticisms, calling the hunt cruel and lacking a scientific basis. More than 7,600 people protested with a petition to the European Union, according to the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation.
Roland Zuiderveld, a journalist with Swedish public television, followed Swedish wolf hunter stomping through the snow-covered forests in Central Sweden.
"I think they feel a bit misunderstood," he told Deutsche Welle. "They feel some Swedes see them as crazy gunmen being out only for the kill."
"But to start with, in Sweden there is a hunting tradition in which hunters go out with their dogs. The dogs are especially vulnerable to wolves, as they tend to seek out wolves whereupon they get killed. So to Swedish hunters, this is an emotional issue as well as an economical issue."
Author: Bill Schiller / gps
Editor: Nathan Witkop