Yes, the wild beasts are coming back to Europe, but not on their own. The humans have a major role in this renaissance - especially the environmental organisations and the relevant EU institutions. For many decades they have been fighting for the endangered species. They guard their habitats, they follow the population dynamics, and they stimulate the reproduction of the rare species, and even re-introduce ones that existed only in captivity.
Wild Europe also has a distinct political framework: hunting bans, protected territories, re-settling the old habitats... The initiatives in some of the member countries inspired the EU to create a comprehensive legislation. It all started with the Directive for bird protection, which came in response to the widespread hunting of birds throughout South Europe. It was adopted in 1979 and it essentially banned the hunting of most European bird species.
The EU members were obliged to designate special protected territories for 150+ severely threatened bird species. This lead to the resurging of the white-tailed eagle populations, and the western marsh harrier, and the black stork, and many others. The most recent researches conducted by Birdlife International are proving it. The European directive has had a tremendous success. It brought encouraging results especially to the new member states.
The EU laws from the 70s and 80s have resulted in cleaner air, recovered rivers and lakes, limited use of chemicals in agriculture and industry. The fish increased in number and diversity, the birds of prey have stabilised their populations.
The most successful law was the Directive for the preservation of natural habitats of the wild flora and fauna from 1992. It obliged the member states to provide protected areas for the endangered species, including such emblematic animals like the Eurasian beaver, the European otter, the lynx, and the wolf. The now existing protected areas should meet some strict criteria, and new ones are expected to be added.
The directive about the habitats declared 234 animal and plant species protected by law. Among them are all the large predators, the European bison, the Alpine ibex and the beaver. This lead to changes in the plans for the construction of new industrial areas and highways. For example in 2008 in Poland there were mass protests because a projected highway was going to pass through one of the oldest and most beautiful protected valleys. The project was amended eventually, and the highway route was altered.
The directive has encouraged many European countries to issue hunting bans for these species. And the new EU members adopted some very strict rules for nature protection and the effective preservation of the fauna. Some lawsuits started as a result of breaches of these rules. In fact roughly every 4th lawsuit at the European Court is related to breaches of the directive for nature preservation.
Granted, the newer members, particularly those in Eastern Europe, do not have the financial capabilities and expertise necessary for following these standards; meanwhile, other countries are lacking the political will to do it. After the European Commission threatened to sue, in 2008 (with an almost 10 year delay) Germany finally presented a project for its protected territories.
Meanwhile almost all countries have defined their protected areas in accordance to the requirements of the Habitats Directive. These are 26 thousand areas that form the "Natura-2000" network, and constitute 18% of the EU territory. The biggest united biotope in the world is a fine example for a relatively harmonious common policy, and even the most sceptically inclined ecological organisations have acknowledged that.
All constituent areas in "Natura-2000" are supposed to have their individual management plans, where, among other prescriptions, a specific guideline for stabilising every species, is included. There is still no statistic, but Birdlife International has investigated and found out that almost 1/5 of these areas already have a full plan. But things are going too slowly. While France, UK and Netherlands are advancing fast, most other countries are lagging behind, including Germany. In 2011 a strategy for biodiversity was accepted, and all countries are expected to put these guidelines to practice until 2020.
But of course this is related to funding. About 6 billion euros are needed annually to prepare and implement these plans. And the funds presently available are far from enough. The European fund "Life+" provides about 0.3 billion every year for nature preservation projects. These scarce funds are only enough to lay the foundations: in France and Italy the experts are explaining to farmers why it is important that the wolves and brown bears should return to their habitats. In Slovakia the initiative for preserving the birds of prey is actively participating in isolating power transmission lines to protect the eagles from deadly short circuits. The European funds are being used for protecting a myriad of endangered species: from the black storks in Estonia, to salmon in Scotland, various tortoise species in Greece... And also vital ecosystems like the dunes in Holland, the marshes in Finland, the steppes and salt lakes in Hungary, the Danube delta in Romania.
Part of the money also goes for research. The EU is trying to resolve conflicts related to the return of the large predators, be it about the brown bear (which is always on the front pages in the Italian press), or the wolf (last year the Euro Commissary on Environment threatened to sue Sweden for allowing wolf hunting). The wolf population in Finland has been shrinking, and the main reason is poaching.
Most of the returning species are still threatened. Despite the successful projects on biodiversity, the European fauna is still far from being in good shape overall. The EU has failed to meet the 2010 objective for stopping the extinction of a number of species, and now the new deadline is 2020. Some new protected areas are being added to the network, ones that were supposed to be in place until last year though. The objective is that until 2020, 15% of the damaged ecosystems should return to their previous condition.
Such initiatives like "Wild Europe" are showing that broadening the wild areas could contribute to the development of a common grid connecting most of the now existing protected territories. Because at the moment most of these reserves are like isolated islands. And this poises a risk for the migrating species, because their gene pool is not getting enriched sufficiently. The EC insists that the member states should work more actively in this direction: re-naturing rivers and lakes, creating "green bridges" under highways and railways where wild animals can pass. But because of the financial crisis many countries have cut the funding to these projects, and the process is stalled.
The battle for more funding from the EU budget continues. The money for nature protection is supposed to increase for the 2014-2020 period. But there are still many questions. Until the end of 2012 the debates on agriculture reform and fishing industry reform have to be competed. The purpose is clear: to make these sectors more environmentally efficient. And if the EU removes the subsidies for the ecologically damaging branches of agriculture, this could have a positive effect on many endangered species. And the fishing quotas would finally correspond to the prescriptions of the experts, not the demands of this trading lobby or the other.
There are reasons for being cautiously optimistic, despite the financial troubles. The EC obviously has good intentions, but from there to the realisation of a system that really works, there is still a long road to walk. The main factor is what would the member states agree on. And that really depends on how much nature they want for themselves.