The European Commission is preparing an infringement procedure against Sweden, after it allowed a cull of 20 wolves by 6,747 hunters on Saturday (15 January), in defiance of a request by Environment Commissioner Janez Poto?nik.
Joe Hennon, a spokesman for Poto?nik, told EURACTIV that the commissioner believed that the cull represented a violation of the EU Habitats Directive and that an infringement hearing could be held as early as 27 January.
"We sent a letter to the Swedish environment minister in December making it clear that we would have no choice but to begin infringement proceedings against Sweden if they went ahead with the hunt," he said.
"The wolf is a protected species and you're not allowed to kill protected species."
Wolves had been all but extinct in Sweden until the 1990s, when a very small number were re-introduced to the country's north. Their offspring are now thought to number around 250. As a result of their limited genetic pool, they are very in-bred.
In Sweden, their presence has polarised the country. Public sympathy for the animals is widespread and the prime minister's office has recorded the third-highest ever number of protest calls condemning the cull.
Many young people became involved in a campaign to save the wolves, and animal rights activists had threatened to use violence to stop the cull.
Moose hunters outraged
Moose hunters have been outraged by the tendency of wolves to kill their hunting dogs, which they see as environmental competitors. The dogs typically race far ahead of their hunters in search of moose, and often follow wolf tracks by mistake.
Moose hunters are a small but politically powerful lobby in Sweden, according to Tom Arnbom, a senior conservation officer for the World Wildlife Fund.
"They're only 6% of the population but they're one of the best lobbying groups," he told EURACTIV. "They've won seven lobbying prizes, the environment minister supports them and they have direct channels to the ministry of culture."
In the 2010 election campaign, the current prime minister and finance minister both promised that there would be a wolf hunt in 2011, and so a collision course with Brussels was set.
One possible compromise that has been mooted would be to introduce wolves from zoos into Sweden's arctic north, so strengthening the animal's gene pool. But environmentalists claim that many of these animals also have genetic problems.
"The best solution would be to let the wolves follow their normal migration route down to Sweden," Arnbom said. "But that's difficult because many of them disappear on the way down, due to illegal hunts."
One way or another, about 60 wolves are thought to have been killed by humans in Sweden last year.