As of November, Germany counted 73 wolf packs, 30 wolf pairs and three “lone wolves” across seven of 16 states.
Conservationists have welcomed the steady growth of wolf populations in Germany in recent years, as they moved from a total absence dating to the 19th century, to their first return from Poland about 20 years ago and then an impressive 36 percent annual increase since the start of the new millennium. Now researchers point to the German military as the unlikely home for wolf packs.
Why? It’s because wild wolf colonies have been thriving on German military bases, with populations that in some cases exceed those of Germany’s intentional protected areas. In fact, the first wolf territory spotted in Germany was on an active military base, after the Canis lupus migrated across the Polish border in the late 1990s and established its home in Germany’s Saxony‐Brandenburg region.
As of November, Germany counted 73 wolf packs, 30 wolf pairs and three “lone wolves” across seven of the 16 states – although all of them show some evidence of wolf presence. Yet the wolves’ affinity for military bases raised questions for scientists at the LUPUS – German Institute for Wolf Monitoring and Research, who wondered why the odd habitats were working.
The team led by Ilka Reinhardt looked at the number and pattern of colonies, the locations and dispersion distances between them, the forest cover and nearby road density to arrive at their conclusions, published in Conservation Letters.
In part, the wolves may gravitate toward establishing new colonies on military bases because they grew up on the bases themselves. After the first three wolf territories were established on an active base in Saxony, the next two were also established in 2007 on military bases more than 200 kilometers away.
“In the following years, more territories were established in new federal states, long distances from the nearest reproducing pack,” the authors said. “We found the first and second long‐term territories in each of these newly colonized states were always established on active military bases (MTA). None of the initial territories were established on protected areas (PA) or other areas.”
So the wolves may be demonstrating natal habitat preferences, because for the first 15 years of their new lives in Germany, they set up 16 of their 79 territories on active military bases – more than the nine territories in protected areas or the range of other sites. They also went twice as far to do so, with an average distance of 128 kilometers to set up a new territory when compared with the average 64-kilometer journey of the wolves that lived in protected areas.
“Natal habitat preference has been shown in a variety of species where dispersing animals tend to choose habitat types similar to those where they have been raised,” the authors said. In their study, seven out of eight wolves born in Germany and raised on military bases also moved to new bases.
Germany’s military bases are known for biodiversity and provide refuge-area habitats for some animals, but the wolves are more generalist than many species that require that. There wasn’t really a difference between the forest cover in the bases and protected areas, either, or the kind and volume of prey, or the nearby roads when it came to wolf mortality.
One difference, though, is critical: poaching. The military bases are tightly controlled environments with highly structured hunts when they are approved, whereas the protected areas operate in smaller areas. The latter may lead to more access from hunters – at least some of whom aren’t always happy about the wolf resurgence in Germany. There are lower rates of poaching on the bases, the LUPUS team found.
More research is needed to understand how other species might behave on the military bases, but the authors suggest further study on how the bases can serve Germany’s conservation goals.