for National Geographic News
The call of the wild can once again be heard in forests in Sweden and Norway, heralding the recovery of the gray wolf.
The wolf had been driven to extinction during the last century, and the animals' comeback since the 1980s has the elements for a conservation success story (photo: gray wolf mother and cub).
But the growing presence of wolves in Scandinavia has polarized residents there and put the mammal's long-term future in the region in doubt.
Many rural communities have brought strong opposition to wolf conservation, saying the wild predators kill their livestock and hunting dogs.
Public opinion in Norway, which has a large rural population, has tended to side against the wolf, and in Sweden the carnivore also appears to be losing support.
Increasing numbers of gray wolves are being killed illegally, researchers say. At the same time the population has been isolated and, as a result, weakened by inbreeding.
With the Swedish countryside seen as a key battleground in what's expected to be a close-run general election in September, the wolf debate is at the top of the political agenda.
"All the political parties are now saying you must listen to the people living with the wolves," said wolf researcher Olof Liberg of the Grimsö Wildlife Research Station in Riddarhyttan, Sweden.
According to Stockholm-based ecologist and commentator Petter Hedberg, the wolf in Sweden has become "a symbol for the way the political power in Stockholm dictates the way people live in rural areas, without [the politicians] having to face the consequences of their decision."
Gray wolves were thought to be extinct in Sweden and Norway by the 1960s following centuries of persecution.
Unexpectedly in the 1980s a single breeding pack was discovered in south-central Sweden.
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