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Where Wolves: Part I

The impact of wolf attacks on voting in Germany.


This analysis was featured in Critical State, a weekly newsletter from Inkstick Media and The World. Subscribe here.

Conserving the natural world means conserving natural predators within it. In Europe broadly and Germany specifically, conservation efforts have seen the reintroduction of wolves to forests and, in turn, wolves venturing beyond forests to hunt domesticated livestock in rural hinterland. How people live with nature, from passive habitat destruction that eliminates predators to campaigns to allow them a return alongside prey populations, is a political question, though it’s often not seen as such.

The reemergence of wolves, and with them, wolf attacks provides a series of discrete events whose effect on voting can be studied and measured. Which, in “Wolf Attacks Predict Far-Right Voting,” is precisely what authors Bernhard Clemm von Hohenberg and Anselm Hager do.

“To explore the connection between wildlife conservation and voting behavior, we study the reemergence of the wolf in Germany. After the species had become extinct in much of Western Europe before or during the 20th century, conservation efforts have recently allowed the wolf to make an impressive comeback,” write the authors.

How people live with nature, from passive habitat destruction that eliminates predators to campaigns to allow them a return alongside prey populations, is a political question, though it’s often not seen as such.

While wolf attacks may call to mind the eaten grandmothers of a Red Riding Hood, the actual impact is more precisely felt by a farmer trying to protect their three little pigs. It’s the impact of wolves on livestock, and in turn on rural jobs and livelihoods, that is the most persistent factor in far-right campaigning after wolf attacks.

“Using a municipality-level panel of voting behavior, we find that communities that witnessed wolf attacks are significantly more likely to vote for the radical right AfD, which espouses climate-skeptic and anticonservationist positions,” write the authors.

One such ad run by AfD paints the farmers as part of the environment now threatened by efforts at biodiversity. These ads are reaching people through Facebook, Twitter, and the manifestos of the party itself. Wolf attacks, and campaigning on them, is a durable and recurring feature of the far-right in Germany.

In evaluating electoral performance, the researchers looked at federal, state, and local elections, and contrasted the performance of the far-right AfD with the environmental-left Green party. Wolf attacks had a minimal to mildly negative effect on Green party performance, but a significant and observable factor in AfD vote share. This was most pronounced at the state level, but was persistent in federal and local elections, too.

“The common interpretation of such findings is that witnessing environmental issues first hand leads to attitude change. However, this coin may have a flip side: Experiencing wolves killing livestock in one’s vicinity increases the likelihood of voting for far-right, conservation-skeptical parties,” write the authors. “Since these parties often oppose measures against climate change, this may lead to a perplexing backlash effect of policies intended to help the environment.”

The electoral impact of wolf attacks isn’t inherently a case against reintroducing wolves, or preserving existing wolf populations. But it should suggest that politics adapts to such actions. A proactive policy that aimed to protect farmers from livestock loss could take efforts to mitigate attacks on livestock, in turn protecting other environmental policies from opportunistic right-wing backlash.

Kelsey D. Atherton


Kelsey D. Atherton is a defense technology journalist based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the author of Inkstick's weekly newsletter, Critical State. His reporting has appeared in Popular Science, C4ISRNET, and The New York Times.


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