A wolf pup faces off with a tank on a training ground near Münster, Germany.

Sebastian Koerner/LUPOVISION

Germany’s wolves are on the rise thanks to a surprising ally: the military

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 populations 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 really remarkable is that the military areas acted as a stepping stone for the recolonization"—and were far more important 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."

Across much of Europe, wolves were heavily persecuted for attacking livestock. They were wiped out in Germany during the 19th century. But 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. The first litter of pups in Germany was reported in 2001 in Saxony-Brandenburg. They’ve since spread westward into six more of Germany's 16 federal states, and monitoring data show their numbers are rising.

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," she adds, noting Germany’s fragmented habitat and the prevalence of roads and humans. "It shows how adaptable wolves are."

Reinhardt was particularly struck by their occurrence in military areas. "This was surprising to us," she says. She and her colleagues noticed that the first pair of wolves to show up in a new state always settled on a military training ground. The second pair, and usually the third also sought out military lands. After that, subsequent breeding pairs would be detected in protected areas or other habitats, the team reports online this week in Conservation Letters.

The military training grounds were clearly a desired location for pioneers, but what was the appeal? 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. Although the military training grounds are not fenced—which means wolves and deer can enter and leave at will—they are closed to the public and posted with many signs. The deer populations are managed by federal foresters, so when private hunting occurs, it is strictly regulated. This means fewer opportunities for poaching wolves, Reinhardt says. 

Elsewhere, including many nature reserves, deer are managed by private hunters. These areas are much smaller than military bases and may have more hunters coming through—so the odds are higher that someone with a vendetta might encounter a wolf. (Why shoot wolves? "I think it's like everywhere, they are considered as competitors," Reinhart says. "People are afraid that the wolves will eradicate the deer.")

Today, poaching does not jeopardize wolf populations, which are large enough in most parts of their range to withstand occasional killings. But poaching could have prevented the first pairs from establishing in nature reserves, Reinhardt says.

Reinhardt and her colleagues recommend that when military training grounds are decommissioned they should be designated as nature reserves and the strict regulations on hunting maintained. "Because of their size in our crowded landscape, they function as conservation areas,” she says, “even though they are not meant to be."

To Chapron, it's a positive legacy of the Cold War. More soldiersand fewer poachersis better for the wolves, he says. "We can clearly see that the wolf owes an acknowledgment to the military."

*Correction, 18 February, 8:50 a.m.: This story has been updated with the most recent population estimate of wolves in Germany.