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ECJ rules against wolf hunting in Austria

July 11, 2024

The European Union's top court ruled that shooting wolves should only be considered a last resort. Austrian authorities have argued that their wolf-hunting regulations had "proved their worth."

A file photo of a wolf biting a wolfhound as he is attacked by dogs during a hunting contest outside Almaty, Kazakhstan
Wolves attack farms, causing outrage among pastoralistsImage: Reuters/P. Mikheyev

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled Thursday that permitting the hunting of wolves in Austria was unlawful, after animal welfare activists contested killings of the EU-protected species in the Alpine nation.

Hunting wolves was allowed in several Austrian regions, with the killings increasing as reports of wolves attacking livestock began to rise. 

Environmental groups had brought the case to a court in Austria's western province of Tyrol, arguing that hunting wolves violated an EU directive adopted in 1992 protecting the animals.

The Tyrol court turned to the ECJ for guidance on the issue.

The ECJ said "a derogation from that [wolf hunting] prohibition to prevent economic damage is only to be granted if the wolf population is at a favorable conservation status, which is not the case in Austria."

The court ruling meant that hunting wolves to prevent economic damage can only be allowed if the wolf population is stable, which it is not the case in Austria.

Targeting 'high-risk-wolves'

The Austrian government admitted that the wolf population in Austria is not at a favorable conservation status. Since last year, at least 20 wolves have been killed in Austria, according to the animal protection organization Bear-Wolf-Lynx Center.

There were around 80 individual wolves in the country in 2022. This marked a slow but gradual return of the animal species, after wolves disappeared from the Austrian landscape in the 19th century, NGOs said.

Regional Austrian governments have appealed for the wolves' protection status to be reduced, saying it was no longer threatened.

After the ruling, the Tyrol government stated that their regulations permitting wolf hunting had "proved their worth" and promised to keep allowing it. Decisions to kill wolves were made on a "case-by-case basis," considering "the special features of our alpine farming," the Tyrolean authorities said.

The Tyrolean government spoke of cases in which some wolves would mostly killed sheep. This could lead to the wolf being labelled a "high-risk wolf," an animal that approaches human settlements and cannot be scared off.

Austria's World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) urged politicians to "move away from their populist false solutions" in response to the ruling.

The NGO said in a press release that Austria's provinces have not used EU funds to promote livestock protection measures or train shepherds, unlike other countries.

Wider implications across EU 

The ruling has implications for all EU member states, said legal expert Jochen Schumacher from the Institute for Nature Conservation and Nature Conservation Law in Tübingen Austria.

Since the ruling in Austria, each individual mountain pasture must check for themselves whether protection, for example by shepherds or fences, is possible.

"The current practice of using criteria to categorize alpine pastures as not eligible for protection is not compatible with the Habitats Directive," Schumacher told German news agency DPA. 

The EU first adopted the so-called Habitats Directive in 1992 to protect over 200 types of habitat as well as over 1,000 species.

Last year, the EU's executive arm proposed changing the status of wolves from "strictly protected" to "protected," prompting criticism from animal welfare groups. 

sp/lo (dpa, AFP)