Wolf in Image: Swen Pförtner/picture alliance via Getty Images
Wolves hold a special place in the human imagination that dates into prehistory, and has surfaced countless times in folklore and culture. Now, scientists have presented a modern iteration of this ancient obsession in a new study that links the reemergence of wolves into Germany with a rise in electoral support for far-right politicians.Wolves once occupied an enormous range across much of North America and Eurasia, but human activities such as over-hunting and habitat destruction caused their numbers to crash in recent centuries. Numerous nations, including the United States and Germany, have spent years helping wolves rebound in regions where they previously were exterminated, which has positive ripple effects on ecosystems but has also resulted in wolves preying on livestock.
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Now, research led by Bernhard Clemm von Hohenberg, a computational social scientist at the University of Amsterdam, combines a range of different data about public opinion on wolves that includes fine-grained spatial maps of wolf attacks in German municipalities, local surveys, Twitter posts, election manifestos, and Facebook ads. Together, the results provide “evidence that the reemergence of the wolf has been accompanied by electoral gains for far-right parties” and show that “far-right politicians frame the wolf as a threat to economic livelihoods,” according to a study published on Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that focused, in particular, on the German far-right party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).“To fight global warming and biodiversity loss, governments around the globe are implementing far-reaching conservation programs including the restoration of habitats and large-scale reforestation,” said von Hohenberg and co-author Anselm Hager, an assistant professor of international politics at Humboldt University of Berlin, in the study, adding that the effects of these actions can “generate political backlash.”“Although the complexities of human–wildlife conflicts are increasingly recognized, evidence on the political repercussions is still scarce,” the pair continued. “The growing success of radical far-right parties across Europe, which have an ambivalent or outright negative stance toward conservation, makes this a particularly pressing issue.”
To tease out the potential connection between wolves and far-right electoral fortunes, von Hohenberg and Hager analyzed voting behavior in communities with and without wolf attacks across time. The researchers introduced controls for “a host of variables that may confound the relationship between wolf attacks,” including attitudes toward immigration and employment, but they still cautioned against “interpreting the findings in a causal manner,” according to the study. Social scientists, political scientists, social media companies, academics, and Twitter knowers have all tried to come up with explanations for a terrifyingly resurgent far right; “wolves” are surely not to blame for what is ultimately a highly complex failing of modern society. The correlation, however, is notable and interesting considering the controls implemented by Hochenberg and Hager.The results revealed that the AfD gained between 1 and 2 percentage points in federal elections, and as much as 5 percentage points in state elections, after a wolf attack in a given municipality. These point fluctuations correspond to absolute vote shares of 9.2 percent on average federally and 11.6 percent on average on the state level since 2013. In addition, the team pulled data from more than 3.5 million tweets made by German members of parliaments since 2008 and what they call “the entire universe” of AfD Facebook ads posted over the past four years, totalling 10,475 unique ads. The ads corroborated links between antiwolf sentiment and far right politics; one message read, “The wolf is a predator, which leads to livestock loss among farmers,” according to the team’s translation.
Livestock predation by wolves is a very real problem for farmers that can involve economical losses and psychological distress, among other negative consequences. However, von Hohenberg and Hager note that this specific issue could imperil broader attempts to mitigate climate change and recover biodiversity in wolf territories. It’s a problem that needs to be wrestled with because this link between right wing politics and antiwolf positions has shown up in other nations, including the United States.“Experiencing wolves killing livestock in one’s vicinity increases the likelihood of voting for far-right, conservation-skeptical parties,” the team said in the study. “Since these parties often oppose measures against climate change, this may lead to a perplexing backlash effect of policies intended to help the environment.” “Given that many more wolf packs are expected to find territories in Europe—models estimate an increase to up to 1,400 packs in Germany from 150 today—mitigating wolf predation on livestock as effectively as possible and generally finding balanced coexistence policies are key to future conservation and climate protection efforts,” the researchers concluded.Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly said that wolves were reintroduced to Germany. In fact, wolf populations in Europe have mostly reemerged naturally in the wake of hunting bans, in contrast to reintroduction programs in the United States and elsewhere. The article has been updated to reflect this.