Across much of Europe, wolves had been heavily persecuted for attacking livestock. They were wiped out in Germany during the 19th century. However, in the 1980s and 1990s, new European laws protected wildlife and habitat, setting the stage for their recovery. And in eastern and southern Europe, abandoned farmland meant fewer people and more deer for wolves to hunt. In the late 1990s, wolves began to dart into Germany from the forests of Poland. They’ve since spread westward into six more of Germany’s 16 federal states, and monitoring data show their numbers are rising.
Wolves are an impressive success story for wildlife recovery in central Europe, bouncing back from near extermination in the 20th century to a population of several thousand today. And in Germany, where communities have been growing by 36% per year, military bases have played a surprisingly central role in helping the animals reclaim habitat, a new analysis finds.
“What is remarkable is that the military areas acted as a stepping stone for the recolonization — and were far more critical than civilian protected areas in the early stages of recovery,” says Guillaume Chapron, a wildlife ecologist at Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Uppsala, who was not involved in the research. It shows that when you strictly protect wildlife, it comes back.”
The population growth “is quite impressive,” says Ilka Reinhardt, a biologist with Lupus, the German Institute for Wolf Monitoring and Research in Spreewitz, who has been involved in efforts to study the wolves since they returned to Germany.
The latest data suggest the country has 73 packs and 30 pairs of wolves. “Twenty years ago, no one would have expected this,” Reinhardt adds, noting Germany’s fragmented habitat and the prevalence of roads and humans. “It shows how adaptable wolves are.”
Their occurrence, particularly in military areas, struck Reinhardt. She and her colleagues noticed that the first pair of wolves to show up in a new state always settled on an army training ground. The second pair, and usually the third, also sought out military lands.
The military training grounds were a desired location for the wolves
Reinhardt could find no sign that habitat was better there than in nature reserves, as measured by the amount of forest and density of roads. But when they compiled the death records, they were shocked to find that wolf mortality rates were higher in protected areas than in the military training grounds.
The difference seems to be poaching. Therefore, The German government has announced plans to convert 62 disused military bases just west of the Iron Curtain into nature reserves for eagles, woodpeckers, bats, and beetles.
Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks said: “We are seizing a historic opportunity with this conversion — many areas that were once no-go zones are no longer needed for military purposes.
“We are fortunate that we can now give these places back to nature.”
Together the bases are 31,000 hectares — that’s equivalent to 40,000 football pitches. The conversion will see Germany’s total area of protected wildlife increase by a quarter.
The Green Belt stretches more than 7,760 miles, along the line of the former Iron Curtin, where decades of minimal human activity let the wild take over. Now it serves as an essential migration route for wolves, bears, and lynxes by linking green spaces.