Oslo, Norway – For four years, Tarjei Berg has been searching for wolves.
He’s become an expert at tracking them near his home half an hour outside Oslo, and has placed cameras in the forest to snap a photo whenever a large animal passes by. Every few weeks he opens the cameras and eagerly checks the film.
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He often captures fleeting black-and-white images of the wolves, but has only ever actually seen a wolf in the wild once.
An hour away in Hedmark county, sheep farmer Martin Mostue is also on the lookout, but for a different reason: he lost 40 percent of his flock last summer to wolves.
“The government gives compensation when some of your flock gets killed by a wolf, but it’s not just a financial loss,” says Mostue. “I lost some of my best sheep that I had been breeding for years.”
Mostue’s farm is on the outskirts of one of Norway’s “wolf management zones” where wolves live in the wild and are protected by law from hunting. Like most Norwegian sheep, Mostue’s flock roams freely, which makes them vulnerable to the wolves that can travel up to 100km outside of their designated zones.
“It’s a really serious situation,” says Erling Aas-Eng, a local representative for the Norwegian Farmers’ Union. “Farmers become psychologically tired from the threat of finding carcasses of their sheep during the summer. It’s not a situation that you can live with for years, and some give up.”
More than 40 years since the wolf was officially classified a critically endangered species, its presence in Norway has never been more controversial.
Norway’s wolf population is estimated to be between 65 and 68. In September, the Norwegian parliament approved a cull of 47 wolves on the grounds that national population goals for wolves had already been met, and numbers needed to be controlled.
While farmers such as Mostue hope that a cull will mean fewer wolf attacks on their sheep, conservationists emphasise that just 2 percent of total Norwegian livestock deaths every year are caused by wolf attacks.
Sverre Lundemo, biodiversity adviser at WWF Norway, says other predators such as the lynx and wolverine do more damage than wolves, but the latter has become a scapegoat.
“Cultural mythology makes the wolf an easy thing to blame,” he explains. “When people ask why the countryside is being depopulated, it’s often to do with economic policy and other reasons, but that’s too intangible. The wolf is much easier to blame.”
The Norwegian government’s official policy is it remains committed to ensuring the survival of wolves, and in a landmark case last year, six men were given prison sentences for organising illegal hunts in wolf-management zones.
It is a policy that Lundemo says is undermined by the latest plans for government-organised hunts in such zones. He says the goal of reducing the wolf population by two-thirds is unviable and could leave it on the brink of extinction.
“When the population is so small, it becomes much more prone to catastrophic events. If you only have 20 wolves left, some could be killed illegally and others by a train, for example.”
Norwegian wildlife groups have appealed against the cull, which is expected to begin on January 1, 2017. It’s expected to take until February to track down the elusive predator.