Sweden’s wolf population has changed substantially over the past 20 years. It was at an alarmingly two decades ago, but now wolves have increased in numbers to the point where some 400 wolves are believed to exist within the country’s borders. Up until January 2015, this was only the third time wolf hunting has been allowed during the past 50 years. As the wolves began to encroach on developed land, problems started to show. The debate surrounding the wolf hunt raged between hunters and their opposers. Following preparation, inhibition, appeals and new decisions made, the hunt in Värmland (a Swedish county) finally started. The wolf-hunt opposers bawled with anger, but the court of appeal in Gothenburg, Sweden, had made its decision. Even though appeals kept coming in, I found myself with a wolf at my feet.
This animal has never been called the king of the forest, but that was exactly the sentiment that came over me while staring at this 115-pound animal with unbelievably sharp teeth, well-adjusted to cut through meat and bones This wolf was the alpha male. There is something special about an animal that sits on the top of the food chain — an animal apart from the human, that is. Somehow you know that you are utterly inferior in case of an attack. Particularly while carrying a camera. Maybe that’s just where the fasciation lies; it’s probably also where the problem lies. Quite simply, it’s a dangerous animal and you wouldn’t want it close to your home. People have given witness to wolf tracks in their child’s sand box. There was another report of a wolf growling at a woman pushing a stroller. And of course the list of countless dogs that have been killed or went missing.
The Hunt (Saturday)
Around 60 hunters have gathered early Saturday morning in Hässlingsberg outside Torsby, Värmland. Combined with other nearby hunting teams, there are probably several hundred hunters on this hunt. During the Friday hunt (the day before), a wolf was shot in this area and several others outside Sunne in the southern part of Värmland. Still, there are quite a few wolves remaining of the 24 that make up the hunt quota for this area.
The wolf is a difficult animal to keep track of, and counting them is no easy task. It’s believed that there are 200 wolves in Värmland, but the number is probably higher, thinks Eva Forsgren, chairwoman of the Torsby Game Preservation Association. The game animals are about to collapse in several areas. Meanwhile, wolf populations continue growing. “It’s a completely unsustainable situation,” says Lennart Johannesson, chair of the Värmland hunter’s association. A pack of wolves consisting of an average of six wolves kills some 150 elks each year, claims Forsgren, “so soon we’ll be out of elk.”
As the sun slowly closes in over the fir tops and the hunters read the wolf hunt PM and sign the participation list, there are reports coming in that wolf tracks have been found in two areas. After a fair amount of discussion and some close studies of the map, the first-shift shooters are sent out. Hunters with grit but little experience in wolf hunting take their lunches and their coffee thermoses and get ready for a long wait in a desolate and quiet winter landscape. And the wait is long. Just before sundown, however, the Hässlingsberg hunt group as well as their neighboring hunt group manage to kill a wolf each.
When Per Larsson of the county administrative board later examines the wolves in the light of the headlamps, he establishes that they are both young animals. Counting the wolf killed from yesterday, they’re probably yearlings — nine months old, born in the month of June. “You can tell by feeling their legs,” says Larsson. “If there is a lump below the knee joint, it’s a young animal.”
Some 50 hunters gather. There are clear and fresh wolf tracks in the area. The hunters place themselves along a long road and trackers are sent out for the wolves. At least two wolves are thought to roam the area, of which one is a female in heat, leaving distinctive blood trails in the snow. Wolves have recently had their breakfast, the tracker announces over the radio, as he comes upon a half-eaten elk in the forest. No shots are heard, though, and the clock ticks past lunch before reports come in on tracks leaving the area where the hunters are waiting. Quickly, a decision to reorganize the hunters is made. Following some difficulties, the hunters organize themselves in a U formation around the area where they believe the wolves are. With everyone in place, the silence settles. Suddenly, reports come in from the neighboring hunting team — there are wolves leaving their area, too. Inge Bönström, one of the hunt leaders, is placed with a number of hunters along a winding forest road, silently waiting. The only thing that can be heard, apart from the woodpeckers, is Bönström’s occasional whispers over the radio. “There are two wolves coming toward us from one direction and four wolves coming towards us from the other,” he says.
It’s a special feeling, knowing that the forest surrounding us is practically buzzing with these large predators and that they might emerge from the forest just where we are standing. First, a loud bang rings out not far from us. Then a crackling sound from the radio can be heard. Someone has missed a shot. A minute or so later, new information comes in, “The wolf is down!” It wasn’t a miss after all. It’s the hunter next to us, no more than 100 yards away, who has shot a female. When I stand alone in the forest with the dead wolves some minutes later, I yet again fill up with that special feeling. It doesn’t have to do with the matter of the wolves’ being or not. Rather, it’s a feeling of reverence toward nature and its inhabitants. I can’t help but look at the wolf’s chest, mostly to see that it’s not moving up and down.
Suddenly, another blast! It’s quickly followed by others. A few minutes go by, and yet some other shots roar through the forest. There is some uncertainty as to what has happened, but it turns out that two more wolves have been shot; one is the alpha male, the 12th animal shot. As the sun goes down, the wolves are sent to a professional who preps the skins. The shooters get the skin, but the body and skull are transported to the county administrative board. That’s the deal.
After a mere 12 days, the 24-wolf quota has been reached and the hunt is over. “We’ve learned a lot,” says Forsgren. “We have increased our knowledge of wolf hunting. We have also taught a few wolves to stay away from humans.” This is one of the main reasons for the wolf hunt. It’s not only a matter of keeping wolves in check in certain areas — it’s also to teach the wolf to stay away.
The forest has returned to a quiet and peaceful state. As I roll homebound in my warm car, I can’t help but think of this majestic predator, of the hunters or the people residing in wolf areas. I also think of the “wolf huggers” as the hunters call them. The need for a decision in the wolf matter, one that everyone accepts, is prevalent. My hope is that shooting 24 wolves will make a difference for the inhabitants of Värmland, but I realize that this merely scratches the surface. Less than a year will go by before new hunting motions, decision and appeals will be made. Maybe new wolf skins will ornate the walls of Värmland. Maybe not.
Editor’s Note: This story appeared in Predator Xtreme’s February Issue. It was written about Sweden’s 2015 wolf hunt.