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COLUMN ONE

Fangs are bared in Germany

The woods of Saxony are home to wolves again, and their status as a protected species has hunter and biologist snapping at one another.

January 22, 2007|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

Baerwalde, Germany — THERE'S blood on the frost and blame in the air.

The wolves are back, hunting in the night, skulking through gardens, making the farm dogs restless. Sleek and mystical, they have roamed through folklore and fairy tale, a bit of enticing danger at the forest's edge.

But Joachim Bachmann, a hunter with a wall full of trophies, is not so lyrical when it comes to the wolf's reappearance amid the birch and pine of the eastern woods in Saxony.

In today's Germany, the wolf is a "protected species." Mention these two words and you'd better duck, because Bachmann can't quite get his mind around how a sheep-eating machine should not be shot on sight. It bothers him even when he sits at the big table in his big house looking out the window to a damp land speckled with paw prints.

"What positive thing does a wolf bring to nature? Nothing," he says, cutting his schnitzel and salted potatoes.

There is something else out beyond the winter grass that perturbs him too. Down the road, past a church and through a forest so dense it seems like walking through the bristles on a hairbrush, a woman Bachmann describes as a misguided Little Red Riding Hood charts the personalities and nocturnal habits of wolf packs.

Gesa Kluth's boots are muddy and her maps are worn; to Bachmann, the biologist is an infuriatingly dedicated state-funded wolf lover.

She's not cooing about him either. Kluth points to a picture on her door of a sturdy white-haired man in a hunting hat peeking out from a stand of evergreens. It's Bachmann.

"He's our No. 1 enemy. We were thinking about getting darts to throw at it," she says.

Kluth spends her days and nights tracking wolves, where they sleep, play and hunt on a territory of about 115 square miles. She plans to trap a few, fix them with radio transmitters and follow their migrations, which appear to be drifting north and west. To her, the wolf is a stealthy, swift, misunderstood beauty.

"The problem is that hunters see themselves as the predators who control the animal population from overpopulating," she says. "But now the wolves have returned and they are the natural predators, which threatens the hunter's lifestyle."

Wolves were hunted to near extinction in Germany in the Middle Ages. They reappeared from time to time, between wars and other epochs that changed borders and rearranged forests.

Dozens were shot in East Germany during the Cold War. But the demise of the communist government and the rise, after German reunification, of environmentally conscious successors have given nature a foothold on land that had been lost to warehouses and iron mills that today languish like industrial ghosts.

Wolves reappeared in this part of Saxony in the mid-1990s, when a lone male crossed the Neisse River from Poland, which has about 500 wolves.

The first German pups were born in 2000; today at least 25 wolves wander the forests on army training sites and hunt along the brown coal of strip mines. A few others live to the north in Brandenburg, where their territory widened as 1.5 million people fled East Germany after the Berlin Wall fell. Last year, a wolf believed to have wandered up from Italy was hit by a car in southern Bavaria.

Like the beast he despises, Bachmann arrived in the east after what people here call "former times." He was born in a part of Silesia that reverted to Poland after World War II. He and his family were forced into East Germany. They escaped in 1953 and moved to the Ruhr region of West Germany, where he eventually ran a fleet of coal trucks. A few years before the wolves rediscovered Saxony, Bachmann built a wood house here, decorating it with an antler chandelier and mounted heads of wild boar, bison and rams.

He and his buddies track deer. So do the wolves. Bachmann is worried that the deer population will be thinned and the state will reduce quotas for hunters. Hunting is cheaper in eastern Germany than in the west, but if wolves upset the ecosystem, hunters would have less deer meat to sell and may stop paying to use privately owned game lands. This could suppress real estate values in a region with limited prosperity.

"The wolf population is doubling each year," Bachmann says. "Soon we'll have more than 120, and then the wild deer will be gone and the forests will be empty. I think many of these wolf lovers orchestrated the return of the wolf. They're getting paid to protect the wolf. They use the wolf as a magnet for donations. Look on the Internet -- you can become a 'wolf patron.' "

The wolves in Saxony coexist with tanks and gunfire erupting from NATO and German soldiers on war game exercises in the forests. The animals hunt at night when steam plumes from power plants streak the sky with phosphorous incandescence, and sometimes they snatch a farmer's sheep, bringing angry morning phone calls to Kluth, who works with another biologist and a public relations officer in a region of about 20,000 people.

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