THE HAGUE, Netherlands — A Dutch court ruled Wednesday that authorities can use paintball guns to shoot at wolves in a popular national park to scare them after at least one of the animals began approaching human visitors.

The decision was a victory for the eastern province of Gelderland, that has sought to frighten the wild wolves using paintball guns. Wolves are protected in the Netherlands and can’t be hunted.

A wildlife protection organization that opposes the plan said that it would appeal the ruling.

Two centuries after wolves were hunted to extinction in the Netherlands, the animals officially returned to the country in 2019 when a pair of the animals crossed the border from Germany and gave birth to three cubs on Dutch soil.

The European Commission announced last year that it’s weighing whether to rein in protective measures for the animals amid farmers’ concerns about their livestock.

Experts and environmental groups estimate that up to 19,000 wolves may be present in the 27 EU member countries, with populations of more than 1,000 thought to exist in Bulgaria, Greece, Italy, Poland, Romania and Spain.

The Central Netherlands District Court said in its ruling that one female wolf at the Hoge Veluwe National Park has been seen approaching walkers and cyclists, displaying what it called “unnatural behavior.”

The park is a popular destination for hikers and bicycle riders and also is home to a world-renowned art gallery, the Kröller-Müller Museum. It also is home to animals including deer, mouflon sheep and wild boars. Those animals have been repeatedly attacked by wolves in recent years.

The park recently posted footage on Instagram that it said showed a confrontation between two packs of wolves — one inside the fenced-off park and another outside.

An expert who gave evidence to the court on behalf of the province said that the female wolf was “becoming increasingly bolder,” the court said in a statement.

“The expert concludes that this unnatural behavior poses a serious threat to public safety. The fact that the wolf seems to be less and less afraid of people does not mean that the animal can no longer become aggressive and bite,” it added.

It wasn’t immediately clear when authorities would begin using paintball guns to target wolves in the park.

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