In former times, wolves populated the whole of Austria. Due to conflicts with livestock husbandry, competition for wild game, and a direct threat for human life, wolves were persecuted and at the mid of the 19th century extirpated in Austria. From these times up to the year 2008 wolves only showed up occasionally. Since 2009, wolves immigrate regularly from neighbouring populations and since 2016 with increasing numbers. About 48% of Austria is covered by forest and the country has the highest wild ungulate density in Europe. General habitat quality is therefore good.
The wolves in Austria originate from four different populations: Western and Southern Alps (Italy, France, and Switzerland), Dinaric Mountains (Slovenia, Croatia), Carpathians (Slovakia) and the Central European lowlands (Germany, Western Poland and Czech Republic). In the beginning, most wolves came from the South and settled in the Alps, but in the last years, more and more wolves reach Austria from the Central European lowland population, probably due to its increase in size and its expansion into the Czech Republic.
The first pack was formed in 2016 on a military training area (Allentsteig). In the following years, there was again one pack in 2017, three packs in 2018 and 2019 and probably only one pack in 2020. The number of confirmed adult and subadult wolves increased from 6 in 2016 to 32 in 2019. All packs are located in the lowlands of Northern Austria.
Wolves in Austria show high turnover rates. The only exception are the parent wolves from the Allentsteig pack. Individual wolves in the Alps can be detected in average for 5 months by genetic evidence and 7 months including all signs. The according average times in non-alpine areas are 5 and 13 months, respectively. The high turnover rates of the individual wolves translate into a similar pattern with the packs. Outside of the military training area, packs did not remain for longer than one year, and no pack has been formed in the alpine areas, yet. No Austrian offspring has ever been detected again in Austria outside of their respective pack’s territory.
Austria perceives a tough public debate on the return of the wolves. Whereas the majority of the Austrians is in favour, some parts of the society oppose the return completely and ask for wolf-free zones or even a wolf-free Austria. Most prominent among these groups are sheep keepers and hunters. Sheep keepers are very loud and frank in the public debate. They argue that damage prevention measures are difficult or even impossible to implement. Hunters act more moderately in the public debate, but many hunters do not accept the wolf. Statements like “if I see a wolf, I will shoot it” are very common. The public can follow and understand the fears of the sheep keepers. Using tax money in order to support the sheep keepers for damage prevention is widely accepted. The view of the hunters is less accepted, since their motivation is viewed as egoistic attitude.
In order to manage the return of the wolf in this difficult public context, the Austrian states and the federal ministries founded an umbrella organization, called “Österreichzentrum Bär, Wolf, Luchs”. Stakeholder groups and scientific institutions are extraordinary members. The idea of this organisation is to support the public administrations in handling these challenges within the legal framework and to organize a low-conflict coexistence of large carnivores and people, especially land users. This organisation has been founded in early 2019.
For Austria the Wolf is listed in Annex IV of the EU habitats directive and therefore strictly protected. The implementation of measures for damage prevention and other measurements supporting a coexistence between wolf and people are in a very early stage.