Latvia is publicly committed to becoming a leader of the European Union (EU) in conserving and increasing natural capital. However, practice shows that the interests of hunters, foresters, and farmers have led to the set goals being forgotten. Harvest quotas for specially protected species of European significance such as lynx, wolf, and deer (cloven-hoofed animals) are set taking into account the number of animals. Nevertheless, this information varies among data sources, where the number of lynx population varies up to eight times. It allows one to manipulate data, especially when deciding on the number of game animals per hunting season. Among the 23 EU Member States where lynx occupies the territory, their hunting is allowed in only three countries, that is, Latvia, Finland, and Sweden. In Latvia, the harvest quota for lynx exceeds the quotas set in the other two countries significantly. The State Audit Office draws attention to the fact that the State Forest Service (SFS) decides on the possibilities of lynx hunting in Latvia instead of the Nature Conservation Agency (NCA), which is responsible for the conservation of specially protected species.
Taking into account the heated discussions about the game species management in public space, especially lynx hunting, the State Audit Office conducted an audit to find out the conditions of game management in Latvia and the role of state institutions in those processes.
Misleading data on the number of lynx and wolves in Latvia
The Habitats Directive of the EU Council prohibits the hunting of specially protected species of European significance, that is, lynx, with only a few exceptions, including where the hunting does not harm the conservation of the lynx population. One makes an exception if Latvia can prove that the number of animals is sufficient and is not decreasing. Therefore, reliable data is of crucial importance in this case. However, the statistics are surprising; for example, there were 1578 lynxes after the hunting season in Latvia in 2018 according to SFS data. In contrast, the number of lynxes in Latvia was almost three times less according to expert estimates (450-650), while the particular monitoring data of the Latvian State Forest Research Institute Silava showed up to eight times lower number of lynx (190).
The auditors concluded that the official assessment of the large carnivore population by SFS is 'historical', that is, based on data from previous years and cannot be traced and verified. When questioning the official data, Latvia's report to the European Commission also indicates and publishes the population of large carnivores indicated by the expert in addition to the SFS data.
A lynx banned as the game in Europe can become a hunter's trophy in Latvia legally
Lynx occupy the territory in 23 EU Member States, but they are hunted in only three of them, Latvia, Finland, and Sweden. Latvia is the only country where one hunts lynxes up to the maximum allowable harvest quota of 20% of the population, which exceeds the harvest quotas set in Finland and Sweden for at least one half. Unlike Latvia, lynx pose a threat to reindeer husbandry in the Nordic countries, but there is no scientific evidence that this species poses a threat to humans and causes damage to farms in Latvia.
"Unfortunately, one admits the fact once again that there is no order about the data in our country, and this opens up wide opportunities for interpretation and manipulation. In this case, the justified question arises: what makes the self-regulating lynx population in Latvia so different from other European countries, including neighbouring countries that we can afford to hunt those animals in such a significant number?" emphasises Auditor General Elita Krūmiņa.
In Latvia, the Cabinet Regulations define the lynx species as a specially protected species to be hunted to a limited extent, and thus the SFS decides on lynx hunting. The status of a lynx species specified in the Cabinet Regulations does not provide for the assessment of hunting objectives of this species or alternative measures, as provided for in the EU Habitats Directive.
The excuses of the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Regional Development and the Ministry of Agriculture that the European Commission has accepted lynx hunting in Latvia, taking into account the good condition of the lynx population, do not stand up to criticism, as there are no reliable data leading to the data provided to the EC be also questionable. In addition, the case-law of the Court of Justice of the European Union does not allow concluding that the favourable status of a specially protected species is a sufficient basis for its hunting, and non-observance thereof poses a risk of legal proceedings against the Republic of Latvia.
One must align a hunting reporting and monitoring system
Cloven-hoofed animal management affects several groups of society directly, namely, hunters, forest owners, farmers, and road users. Hunting is one of the most effective tools for managing game species, but one must handle that tool reasonably and in good faith.
The SFS assessment shows that the number of cloven-hoofed animals is increasing every year; the harvest quota for cloven-hoofed animals are increased every year, which are higher than the economic growth of the species. Consequently, the damage caused by cloven-hoofed animals should have decreased. However, the audit has concluded the opposite during the audit, as the data show that the damage that forests and agriculture incur continues to increase every year and the financing of JSC "Latvijas valsts meži" for the protection of young forest stands is increasing, too.
The hunting reporting system established in the country does not guarantee reliable information on the number of hunted animals, as it allows hunters to report any number of hunted animals to the SFS to maintain the harvest quota for the next hunting season and not be criticised by forest owners and farmers. Besides, in the opinion of the State Audit Office, there is insufficient monitoring of whether forest owners and farmers take protective measures against possible damage for their part, as provided by the Hunting Law and which could prevent the need to increase harvest quota continually.
The officials of SFS can stick to their biased considerations when deciding on harvest quota based only on their experience and understanding, as well as the desire or unwillingness to discuss with hunters and forest owners by defending the position of the state. Hence, there are different approaches applied in setting harvest quotas in the forest offices and even in a forest office. From 2020, hunters and forest owners themselves will play a much more significant role in deciding on the assessment of the number of cloven-hoofed animals and harvest quotas. In such a situation, clearly defined assessment criteria will be of particular importance. Therefore, the State Audit Office calls for the development and application of sound assessment criteria.
At the same time, the audit observed sluggish and reluctant actions of the Ministry of Agriculture to ensure the use of modern information technologies to enable the SFS to monitor hunting more effectively, including ensuring such self-evident activities as hunting recording using information and communication technologies. One does not address the issue of cooperation between the SFS and the State Police in the prevention and control of poaching effectively enough.
The State Audit Office has provided 13 recommendations during the audit. It expects that one will amend the laws and regulations to ensure the assessment of the conditions set out in the Habitats Directive of the EU Council, thus preserving lynx populations, improving animal estimation methods, and generating reliable data on species status; a common approach to setting unbiased harvest quotas and proper hunting monitoring will be carried out.