Supreme Administrative Court: Bear Permits Illegal. Finland Revises Hunting Practices

In a landmark decision, the Supreme Administrative Court of Finland has declared the fall 2022 bear hunting permits illegal. The ruling came after the court reviewed 17 appeal permit applications related to exemption permits for bear hunting, which had been granted by the Finnish Game Agency. The permits allowed the killing of 111 bears in specific regions of Finland, citing population maintenance as the grounds. However, the Supreme Administrative Court found that the criteria outlined in the Hunting Act and the EU Habitats Directive were not met.

EU Habitats Directive and Legal Framework
The court’s decision was based on the EU Habitats Directive, which mandates Member States to prohibit the deliberate capture or killing of certain species in the wild, including bears, wolves outside reindeer herding areas, and lynxes. The directive allows deviation from this ban under specific conditions: there must be a basis in the directive for granting an exception, no other satisfactory solution should be available, and the deviation must not endanger the species’ conservation level. The court emphasized that any deviation should be case-specific and must address a special regional problem or situation.

EU Law’s Decisive Role
The Supreme Administrative Court highlighted the decisive role of EU law in interpreting the Hunting Act. Precedents set by the European Court of Justice guided the court’s interpretation, and Finnish authorities and courts are bound by these precedents. Notably, similar issues related to wolf and lynx populations were resolved by the court in 2020 and 2022, respectively, following preliminary rulings from the European Court of Justice.

Policy Basis for Exemptions
All exemptions in the reviewed cases were granted on a policy basis, citing the maintenance of bear hunting culture and adaptive management of the bear population under the principle of sustainable use. However, the court asserted that such grounds were not acceptable for deviating from species protection under the Habitats Directive. The court clarified that exemptions must be based on specific and precisely defined reasons, addressing the effects in the area concerning the exception application.

Court’s Stance on Population Management
The court acknowledged that an excessively dense bear population can cause problems, but mitigating these issues through controlled reduction should only be considered if it addresses a special regional problem or situation. The decisions of the Finnish Game Agency lacked clarity and precision regarding the acceptable goals according to the Habitats Directive for the exception permits, rendering them against the law.

Ministry’s Response and Overhaul of Bear Hunting Practices
Following the decisive ruling by the Supreme Administrative Court, the Finnish Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry has responded with a significant announcement. In light of the court’s decision, the Ministry has declared that sustainable bear hunting in Finland will undergo substantial changes and will not continue in its current form. 

Press release of the Supreme Administrative Court (in finnish):
KHO: Syksyn 2022 karhuluvat lainvastaisia – Korkein hallinto-oikeus
Decisions (in finnish):
KHO 2023:99
KHO 2023:100