I have a new article out co-authored with Peder Roberts (KTH Royal Institute of Technology) on the many attempts and plans by Norwegians to move animals to and from the Arctic during the Interwar period. We teamed up together on this because while I had looked into the muskoxen relocated from East Greenland to Svalbard and the plans to introduce lemmings and rabbits as fox food on Svalbard, Peder had done work on penguin, seal, and reindeer relocations involving the Antarctic. The sheer number of these attempts was mind boggling.
In 1922, the Arctic explorer and ethnographer Vilhjalmur Stefansson published his book The Northward Course of Empire in which he argued that the North had been greatly misunderstood and could become a seat of great civilisation. After all, he argued, civilization had been moving further and further north into the colder regions over human history.
The North, rather than being a barren wasteland devoid of vegetation, was a green space. The trick, Stefansson argued, was to turn the vegetation to productive use:
The realization kept gradually growing on me that one of the chief problems of the world, and particularly one of the chief problems of Canada and Siberia, is to begin to make use of all the vast quantities of grass that go to waste in the North every year. The obvious thing is to find some domestic animal that will eat the grass. Then when the animal is big and fat it should be butchered and shipped where the food is needed. (48)
Stefansson believed cattle and sheep were not the answer to this problem because of the problem of feeding and sheltering them during the winter. Traditional crop plants could also not withstand the frosts. Instead he decided that the solution to this waste was the widespread domestication of reindeer and muskox in the North.
Stefansson began actively promoting the animals after World War I. With his encouragement, the Canadian Department of the Interior set up a royal commission in 1919 to study the possibilities and they issued their final report in 1922. The report comes out more in favour of reindeer than muskox because of prior work domesticating reindeer, but it also encouraged further investigation of industrial possibilities for muskox domestication.
Stefansson may have first become acquainted with muskoxen (which he called ovibos based on the Latin name because he disliked the ‘musk’ and ‘ox’ connotations of the regular name) during his time in the Mackenzie Delta of Canada in 1906-1907. The presence of a hand-colored lantern slide of a muskox herd dated 1906 in his collection at Dartmouth College makes this likely. Stefansson had eaten plenty of muskox on his various Arctic expeditions and offered the opinion that “not one person in ten could even when on his guard tell an ovibos steak from a beefsteak” (The Friendly Arctic, 585). He also noted that muskox wool (qiviut) was high quality, although it was difficult to collect and spin because it was mixed with longer hairs. In his descriptions of muskox in The Freindly Arctic (1921) and The Northward Course of Empire (1922), he claimed that the animals do not roam in search of pasture, seldom attack, and seldom flee. All in all, the muskox was the perfect animal to make the North productive:
When we sum up the qualities of ovibos, we see that here is an animal unbelievably suited to the requirements of domestication–unbelievably because we are so habituated to thinking of cow and the sheep as the ideal domestic animals that the possibility of a better one strikes us as an absurdity. We have milk richer than that of cows and similar in flavor, and more abundant than that of certain milk animas that are now used, such as sheep and reindeer; wool probably equal in quality and perhaps greater in quantity than that of domestic sheep; two or three times as much meat to the animal as with sheep, and the flavor and other qualities those of beef. When you add to this that the animal does not roam in search of pasture, that the bulls are less dangerous than the bulls of domestic cattle because they are not inclined to charge, and that they defend themselves so successfully again packs of wolves that the wolves understand the situation and do not even try to attack, it appears that they combine practically every virtue of the cow and the sheep and excel them at several points. (The Friendly Arctic, 587)
With a pitch like that, it’s a wonder everyone didn’t run out and buy a muskox! Although Stefansson may sound like he is overselling his product, others would adopt very similar language in touting the muskox as Svalbard’s future meat supply in the late 1920 and the next knitting industry of northern Norway in the 1960s. Even in 1946, Stefansson was still promoting muskox as a domestic animal, this time saying that it was “the most promising animal for New England” in an article in Harper’s Magazine. Stefansson’s vision was directly transmitted to John Teal Jr., who started an experimental farm in Vermont in 1954 to raise muskoxen and later moved his operation to Alaska.
The vision of turning the ‘unused’ land of the North into a fruitful Arctic was powerful. It encouraged both domestication and reintroduction projects of muskoxen in Norway, Alaska, and Canada over the course of the 20th century. The land of snow and ice would be a land of meat and wool.
Engineering nature has been a long-term preoccupation of humans. In my research, this is most obvious in the case of muskoxen, which were imported to the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard in 1929 primarily as a future meat source (although politics certainly factored in). As in many 19th century acclimatisation projects that had gone before in North America and Australia, establishing muskox on Svalbard was believed to be the way to make the barren landscape productive. Many people adopted positive outlooks toward nature-improvement schemes, like proverbial lemmings following each other off a cliff (which, by the way, lemmings don’t actually do).
Adolf Hoel, the founder of the Norwegian Polar Institute, and other scientists of the early 20th century didn’t stop at relocating muskox onto Svalbard. They were ready to re-make nature into desirable and productive landscapes with intervention even further down the food chain.
In a meeting of scientists at the Svalbard office on 19 September 1937, Hoel led a discussion about the possibility of bringing lemmings from East Greenland to Svalbard. Although lemmings existed on the Norwegian mainland where they are prey for the Arctic fox (Vulpes lagopus), no rodents lived on Svalbard. On Svalbard as well as Iceland and northern and western Greenland, Arctic foxes live off of seabirds and their eggs. The “coastal foxes” which feed on birds/eggs and the “lemming foxes” which predate mainly on lemmings are the same species, but they exhibit different life-history traits, reproductive strategies, and movement patterns.
Hoel’s thought was that a lemming population would provide food for the Svalbard foxes, which were a primary target of Norwegian fur hunters, leading to both an increase in the fox population and a decrease in the fox predation on seabird eggs, which were also valuable for hunters.
The zoologist Dr. Ole Olstad expressed some concern about the fox population becoming more variable if it switched prey from birds (which had stable reproduction cycles) to lemmings (which have boom and bust reproductive cycles). Hoel assured Olstad that East Greenland foxes did not have large population swings, at least as shown by the numbers of foxes killed by hunters which appeared extremely consistent from year to year. Olstad then agreed that he had no objections to importing lemmings to Svalbard. There were no comments on the lemming importation from the other meeting participants.
Nothing seems to have come of the proposal. My guess is that Hoel and the associated scientists were too busy with other animal translocations like bringing more muskoxen to the Dovre mountains to follow through with the idea. In the end, no lemmings were brought to Svalbard. Although a small population of sibling voles (Microtus rossiameridinalis) was accidentally introduced some time before 1960, perhaps by Russian supply ships to their colonists per Fregda et al. 1990, there are still no large colonies of rodents on Svalbard. Yet the foxes seem to be doing just fine without them, with stable abundant populations across the islands. The foxes didn’t need lemmings as much as Hoel and the others thought they did.
Sometimes not following the crowd ends up on a better path.
Thanks to Peder Roberts for copying documents in the Norwegian State Archives, Tromsø, that brought the lemming scheme to light.
All of the muskox calves that eventually came to Norway and Sweden as reintroduction objects originated in East Greenland. So it is there that the return of the Nordic muskox begins.
East Greenland first became a Norwegian whaling location then seal hunting grounds in the late 19th century. During the winters on Greenland, hunters and their dogs required food – and the muskox became their favorite prey. According to a hunter’s account quoted in Elisabeth Hone’s The Present Status of the Muskox in Arctic North America and Greenland (1934), sled dogs needed 2 pounds of muskox meet every day, which for a team of 8-12 dogs, meant consuming 20 pounds a day. Such a high demand and the lack of other suitable prey led to a literal muskox slaughter.
Particularly in the 1920s and 1930s, when the rising value of arctic fox pelts encouraged fox farming in East Greenland, the killing of muskox for meat escalated. In addition to muskox feeding the men and dogs, they were also consumed by the foxes. In one 12-month span, an estimated 130 muskox were consumed to support an operation raising 60 foxes. In his comprehensive history Muskoxen and Their Hunters (1999), Peter Lent estimated 12,000 muskox were killed in East Greenland between 1924 and 1939.
It was within this context that muskox calves were captured alive for translocation. Approximately 350 calves were taken alive from East Greenland prior to 1940, some destined for zoos or private collections and others headed for release in Alaska and Norway (including Svalbard which was claimed by both Norway and Russia). The Norwegian releases included: 10 released on the island of Gurskoy near Ålesund in 1925 & 1926 (all died by 1927); 17 released on Svalbard in 1929 (the last of the Svalbard herd was seen in mid-1980s); and 10 released in 1932 in the Dovre mountains (all died by end of WW2, but more brought afterward and they are still present).
I’d previously asked why these animals were brought to Norway and wrote that the newspaper sources suggested meat was the primary answer. An unpublished manuscript in the Norwegian Polar Institute Library from 1933 by Adolf Hoel, founder of the Norges Svalbard- og Ishavsundersøkelser which became the Norwegian Polar Institute, and the instigator of the muskox reintroduction project, confirms that economic interests — the muskox as meat — played a big role in the project, but it seems keeping muskox as meat in East Greenland rather than having the muskox meat in Norway was paramount:
In recent years people have continuously discussed the best way to preserve the rare species, musk ox, from becoming extinct. In Norway, this query has also aroused great interest both because we are like other cultural people interested in nature conservation and animal protection, and because Norwegians more than other people move and live in the areas in Greenland where musk oxen live.
In Norway it is thus not just for curiosity’s sake that you want to keep it interesting and useful species, but for us Norwegians there is also a major financial interest that a rich population of musk oxen is preserved in Greenland – as large as it can be to utilise the available rangeland. Such a muskox population would not diminish with harvesting for fresh meat along with bear and seal meat for the people living in those areas where the musk ox live. We therefore need to to protect this animal population not only for curiosity’s sake, but also for its economic importance and the enrichment of Greenland’s complete nature and wildlife.
The way to achieve this conservation, according to Hoel, was knowledge, “But if it could happen, but first and foremost acquire knowledge of the muskox’s nature and living conditions in Greenland.” Thus, Hoel actively promoted scientific ventures to East Greenland to study muskox, but in addition, he brought muskox to Svalbard and Norway as other “measures to preserve the musk ox population from extinction.” These reintroduction projects included scientific monitoring and oversight, particularly in the Dovre mountains case in which a zoologist and a veterinarian were charged with monitoring the project. It was indeed a “Norwegian Musk-Ox Experiment,” as John Teal titled an article in 1954.
The East Greenland hunt for muskox dominated the thinking about muskox conservation in Norway. To this day, the hunt surrounds the visitor to the Polar Museum in Tromsø, as muskox skulls, skins, and stuffed bodies seem to stand out in every corner. The hunt becomes the mode of telling the muskox’s story, but does that mode make us more or less aware of the muskox’s history? Take a look at some pictures of the muskox in the Polar Museum and see what you think. And compare those with the graphic display of a seal hunt in the same museum, a display which upset my 6-year-old who is peering over the wall in shock that a man would kill a baby seal. Do the muskox become specimens extracted out of time or are they still grounded in the great Greenland hunt?
Because the archive didn’t open until noon today, I stopped by the Frösö zoo, a local privately-owned zoo which opened in 1960. The zoo has a “Nature room”, which the owners label as the only biological museum in northern Sweden. So I wanted to pop in and see if they happened to have beavers or muskox in their display, since I knew that they did not have live specimens of either one in the zoo.
I had expected to see the beavers. They are a common component of museums in Sweden as far as I can tell. At Frösö, the group of beavers inhabiting the “Middle Northland” (basically meaning ‘local’) section of the packed-to-the-teeth diorama was pretty standard, happily chewing on wood. No surprises there. More interesting was the muskox, whose placement was much more surprising.
The muskox stands in the last section of the exhibit in the area labelled as ‘Svalbard’. A sign upon entering said that the exhibit was set up as a journey from ‘Skåne to Svalbard’ — which is a nice alliteration but kind of silly since Skåne and Mid-Sweden are in, well, Sweden and Svalbard is not. In any case, that’s how they set up the exhibit and the muskox appears as one of the largest animals in Svalbard (there is also a polar bear which is standing so it looks exceptionally large).
What’s exceptional about this is that the exhibit was opened in 1986 … and the last known sighting of muskox on Svalbard was in 1985. The first reintroduction of muskox had taken place in 1929 with the release of 17 calves captured in Greenland. The herd appeared to thrive: according to reports in 1936, the herd had grown to 30, and by the mid-1960s, there were anywhere from 50 to 100. Suddenly the population declined in the 1970s and the whole group died out by 1985. At the same time, the breakaway herd of muskox from Norway had come over to Härjedalen (the adjacent county) in 1971 and stayed. So in 1985, there were actually muskox in the neighborhood, so to speak.
Thus when the exhibit opened, this muskox was placed in exactly the wrong place. Although muskox had been reintroduced to Svalbard, they were no longer there, so did the muskox belong there? At the same time, live muskox were currently inhabiting mid-Sweden, so did the muskox belong in that part of the exhibit instead?
Some reintroduced animals, like the beaver, have quickly been integrated into exhibits. I’ve seen them in lots of museums in Sweden. But clearly the muskox wasn’t seen as a Swedish animal by Rune Netterström who set up the exhibit. In the Biologiska Museet in Stockholm, muskox appear only as part of the ‘Greenland’ diorama rather than in the Swedish landscape because they were not in Sweden at the time the museum was designed. Nothing has been changed since that initial design even though the animal’s ranges have changed.
More broadly, this should make us think harder about how animal exhibits are put together. Where do we place animals whose geographies have changed, whether by our doing or theirs? If animals move to new places because of climate change (and let’s hope they do so that they don’t die out), will we be willing to relabel our exhibits? Because our named places (like Mellan Norrland) are associated with particular habitats, are we going to have to rethink which habitats and animals we show in the future? Are we willing to place ‘exotic’ species that are a common occurrence in the landscape in our dioramas so that we show what’s really out there?
The Frösö zoo muskox stands among Svalbard’s animal life as the last muskox, gazing toward the Mid-Sweden exhibit where muskox currently live. It is a misplaced specimen without a home.