The Return of Native Nordic Fauna

A research blog exploring animal reintroduction history by Dolly Jørgensen

Category: news (Page 1 of 4)

Unexpected media blitz

Earlier this week the press department at my university published a write-up in Swedish about this project based on an interview with me: Utrotade arters återkomst väcker känslor. The university press contact Sofia Stridsman had seen that I had an article in The Washington Post and wanted to find out more about my research. I thought it was a nice gesture, so I quickly agreed to the interview.

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Environmental relationships in the Laudato Si´encyclical

Pope Francis, Laudato Si', 2015.

Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, 2015.

Pope Francis published his much anticipated encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si´, last week. Whether or not you are Catholic (I am not), you should read the document because it is an important contemporary statement about the past/present/possible future relationship between humans and the Earth. Although much of the press hype has portrayed the document as a position on climate change, if you take time to read the whole 180 page document (in English),  you realise that it is much more an environmental justice manifesto concerned about the intertwined fates of humans and non-humans. As an environmental historian working on extinction, conservation biology, and ideas of belonging, I read the encyclical with an eye toward the kind of environmental relationships it depicts. I have four major observations.

First, I was struck by Francis’s definition of environment:

When we speak of the “environment”, what we really mean is a relationship existing between nature and the society which lives in it. Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it. (§139)

This is very similar to the way that I and Sverker Sörlin delineated the difference between environment and nature in our introduction to Northscapes, which in turn built upon his work with Paul Warde in Nature’s End. Environment is the entanglement of nature and people, thus when we do environmental history, we have to examine interactions. This entanglement is the foundation of the Pope’s insistence that environmental protection must be coupled to social betterment:

Recognizing the reasons why a given area is polluted requires a study of the workings of society, its economy, its behaviour patterns, and the ways it grasps reality. … We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature. (§139)

As an environmental historian, I think this emphasis on the coupling of socio-natural systems is critical. In my recent lecture for the Swedish title of docent, I said that environment exists at the centre of a triangle with nature, technology, and social systems on the sides. It is the interaction of all three that makes the thing we know as environment. Because of the connections between humans and nature, the Pope calls for “integral ecology” that combines environment, economic, and social elements (see Chapter 4), a call that I think many environmental humanities scholars would agree with.

Second, Francis has something to say about history and belongingness. He advocates the “need to incorporate the history, culture and architecture of each place” because ecology for him is “the cultural treasures of humanity in the broadest sense”. Culture is both what “we have inherited from the past” and “a living, dynamic and participatory present reality” that affects environmental relationships (§143).

As I have written before, thinking historically is critically important for understanding today, especially since sometimes we need reminding about things we have forgotten. History and culture have environmental implications. To understand why some people say the muskox belongs in Norway or Sweden and others say it doesn’t requires historical cultural analysis. To understand why the raccoon dog is hunted down in Sweden has as much to do with culture as it does nature. The same holds true for whether or not the starling is an American bird.

The subtitle of the encyclical is “on the care of our common home”, which is also a statement of belonging. Humans and non-humans belong on the Earth, sharing this home which Francis warns has become sick and “cries out to us” (§2). The Pope is using the sense of belongingness to position his encyclical within a framework of environmental care.

Third, the Pope writes a fair amount on species extinction. He notes that many extinctions take place unknown to us, yet humans are to blame:

Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost for ever. The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity. Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right. (§33)

There is certainly an extinction ethics in Laudato Si’. In the passage above, there is an assignment of blame and a judgement of right/wrong at work in extinction.

According to the encyclical, all creatures, whether they are megafauna or microfauna have value (§34), and that value is defined intrinsically rather than only anthropocentrically by our “use” of the creature (§69). This does not mean that the Pope ignores the ecosystem service or value of biodiversity. Quite the contrary, he notes that the loss of species may result in losses of resources (food, medicine, etc) in the future, but he believes that thinking of species only as potential “resources” is not enough (§32-33).

On a practical note that speaks to the concerns of conservation biology, Francis advocates “developing programmes and strategies of protection with particular care for safeguarding species heading towards extinction” (§42). Biodiversity needs to be included in assessing the environmental impact of development, and steps taken to prevent species’ “depletion and the consequent imbalance of the ecosystem” (§35). These are calls to action about species and their potential loss.

Yet, Laudato Si’ cautions against thinking that environmental issues like species loss can be countered with technocratic, economically-dependent solutions. (As a side comment, more than anything, I think this encyclical was intended as a slap in the face of the capitalist system that favours the wealthy’s consumption over the poor and leads to environmental degradation.) Francis notes that “we seem to think that we can substitute an irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty with something which we have created ourselves” (§34). This statement could well apply to the deextinction efforts I have discussed in this project. Remaking a thing is never the same as the thing.

Finally, I want to note that Francis makes a statement that environmental humanities scholars need to latch onto and make our own:

We urgently need a humanism capable of bringing together the different fields of knowledge, including economics, in the service of a more integral and integrating vision. Today, the analysis of environmental problems cannot be separated from the analysis of human, family, work-related and urban contexts, nor from how individuals relate to themselves, which leads in turn to how they relate to others and to the environment. There is an interrelation between ecosystems and between the various spheres of social interaction, demonstrating yet again that “the whole is greater than the part”. (§141)

Those of us in environmental humanities fields have said and known this for a long time, but this kind of statement can help us as researchers to address the oft-dreaded ‘relevance’ question in our research proposals, interaction with the public, and making our findings count in politics.

While people may not agree with everything in Laudato Si´, as environmental historian I found it refreshing to have a major religious/political figure speaking out against the historical lack of political will to conserve resources and the modernist turn toward technological solutions to environmental problems, advocating a humanities-based approach to environmental issues, and pointing out the need to have all of us (regardless of religious beliefs) embrace our common home.

Beavers are back in England

England has now reintroduced its first ‘official’ wild beavers.

Video documentation of a beaver colony in Devon in southwestern England had first surfaced in January 2014. Although reports of these beavers had been made since at least 2013, the British authorities could not ignore the new proof of beavers living wild in England.

The governmental agencies became concerned that the beavers might pose a risk since the animals had been released there illegally, i.e. no one had gotten a permit for the release and gone through the veterinarian and risk assessment protocols. The early statements by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) indicated that there were concerns about the genetic background of the animals (Were they from Bavaria instead of Scandinavia like the beavers in the Scotland trial? Or even from Canada?) as well as their potential to carry the Echinococcus multilocularis parasite. DEFRA’s position was that the beavers should be caught and killed.

As you can imagine, a public outcry ensued about the potential beaver cull. In January 2015, Natural England issued a permit to the Devon Wildlife Trust to conduct a 5-year reintroduction trial with the wild beavers. DWT was still required to capture the beavers and run veterinarian checks on them. Five beavers were captured in March and tests showed that (1) they are Castor fiber (rather than the North American beaver Castor canadensis) and (2) were free from Tularaemia, Echinococcus multilocularis and bovine TB. With these confirmations, the beavers meet the Natural England permit requirements. The beavers were released back into the wild on 24-25 March 2015.

The beavers will now be monitored by DWT as part of an official reintroduction program, the first for beavers in England. The Scottish Beaver Trial just ended its 5 year monitoring program in Knapdale and is still awaiting a decision about the long-term status of its beavers. Now a 5-year trial in England has begun. With both projects together, beavers are poised to make a strong return to the UK.

The interest in beaver reintroduction in the UK has come from the bottom up: local nature conservationists and organisations. The central agencies have tended to be conservative, finding ways to stick to the status quo and not attempt reintroduction. This is remarkably similar to the beaver reintroductions in Sweden in the 1920s and 30s, which were also organised and financed by people with local interests. What this shows is that even in a world dominated by technocratic and bureaucratic thinking, local conservation interests can make a difference — in this case, to the survival of the beavers on the River Otter in Devon.

Strength, Courage, Endurance

Brown Bear statue on Brown University campus. Photo by D Jørgensen.

Brown Bear statue on Brown University campus. Photo by D Jørgensen.

On the campus of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, where I gave a talk yesterday, there is a statue of a brown bear. It’s hard to miss. The 7-foot tall bronze bear which has weathered to a green patina stands on its hind legs on top of a stone pedestal, towering over onlookers.

I took a photo of the whole figure, but when I got closer, I could read the inscription on the base:

Given By Alumni And Undergraduates
To Brown University
To Symbolize Those Qualities Of
Strength Courage Endurance
Which Go Far To Make Men Invincible
MCMXXVIII

What struck me as I stared at this bear was that the characteristics that “go far to make men invincible”–strength, courage, and endurance–are precisely the characteristics that make bears vulnerable. Bruno the bear, who I discussed in an earlier post, exhibited those qualities when he made his trek from Italy into Germany, reintroducing bears to Germany on his own. He was looking for new territory, but in the process began damaging farmers’ property. He was labelled as trangressor, not courageous bear, and was killed.

In August 2014, another brown bear in Italy, Danzia became vulnerable because of her strength, courage, and endurance. In the northern Italian province of Trentino, 10 bears from Slovenia were reintroduced from 1999 to 2002. The population has since soared to 40-60 animals. This could be a reintroduction success story, but with growing bear numbers, they are tended to come into contact more and more with human inhabitants of Trentino. In Danzia’s case, she had a pair of cubs and when a man out picking mushrooms came too close–she attacked him. The man survived the attack but suffered bites and scratches. Officials decided to try to capture Danzia, although it is not clear what their plan was for her after capture. When she was finally shot with an anaesthetic dart, she never woke up. Her nine-month old cubs were left to fend for themselves, but at that young age, likely did not survive. Here was a mother, protecting her babies with her strength, courage, and endurance, who was subsequently killed for those qualities.

In reintroduction projects, people don’t want to be faced with animals that are strong, courageous, or enduring. They want animals that are meek, acquiescent, and invisible. That’s the way for the animal to stay out of conflict with humans. Of course, the problem is that many animals, like the brown bear, display those qualities that we find so appealing for humans and so objectionable for animals. While those qualities make men nearly invincible, they make animals vulnerable.

A wolf without sheep’s clothing

A gray wolf which was the first to be seen in the Grand Canyon area of the US since the 1940s is dead. The wolf, nicknamed Echo, had made a long distance journey of about 1200 kilometers from the Yellowstone National Park area to Arizona last year, using its feet to reintroduce wolves to the area. It was killed in Utah, supposedly mistaken by a hunter who thought it was a coyote.

The ending of this story is sad but it is unsurprising. While scientists and activists tout reintroduction of large mammals and envision “rewilded” land full of wildlife, people who actually live on or near that land have other opinions. In general, people do not accept carnivores, or large herbivores for that matter, living too close by. There is a reason that large mammals were wiped out in the past. In many cases, they were consciously hunted to extinction.

Muskox in the garage. Printed in Svalbardposten newspaper, 5 February 1972.

Muskox in the garage. Printed in Svalbardposten newspaper, 5 February 1972.

Big animals are scary, even if they aren’t meat-eaters. In winter 1972, an old muskox had decided to take up residence in Longyearbyen on Svalbard. It found shelter from the wind and snow in the carport of the provincial governor. It was near the town’s kindergarten, so to avoid attacks, the children were kept inside during the school day and were taken to and from school with a bus instead of walking there. One woman ended up being chased down the street by the interloper, narrowly escaping through her front door. The local radio was constantly broadcasting the animal’s whereabouts and the police tried to shoo it away. Two industrial trucks were used to scare the animal 3 kilometers from town, but it came back. Eventually, the animal was drugged and relocated 40 km away. The fear invoked by the muskox’s presence shows that it was perceived as a ‘wild’ animal that did not belong within the urban space. People were afraid of it.

 

There’s a tendency to think we in the 21st century are somehow more ‘enlightened’ about wild animals, but we aren’t. We are just as protective of our property, our children, and ourselves as we ever were. Many large animals, including the wolf known as Echo, are probably not really threats to any of those things, but as long as some animals have sharp teeth or sharp horns, they will be seen by many humans as threats. Reintroduction almost always faces more social challenges than ecological ones.

Short-term thinking

The Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten ran a feature article a couple of weeks ago about alien species with the dramatic, quantitative headline: “2320 nye arter har kommit til Norge — halvparten er uønsket” (2320 new species have come to Norway — half are unwanted). Because the huge image at the top featured a muskox, it caught my eye.

Aftenposten_Jan2015

The article doesn’t really say much new. It covers the definition of “fremmed art” (alien species), which is defined according to the Norwegian Natural Biodiversity Law (Naturmangfoldloven NOU 2004: 28) as “en organisme som ikke hører til noen art eller bestand som forekommer naturlig på stedet” (an organism which does not belong to a species or population which exists naturally in the place). Then the article goes over some examples of the “new species” in Norway, including muskox about which the article says, “A concrete result is muskoxen in Dovre, where the first animals came from Greenland in the 1920s. Even though we know muskoxen lived in Norway earlier also.” It is this statement which brings up the time question in my mind–a question that I’ve discussed before, including a comparison of different European countries choice of cut-off line for “native” species.

Fremmedearter2010_Boks2 The Norwegian list of alien species which came out in 2012 specifically had a call-out box discussing the issue of time. It sets up 1800 as the point at which “alien species” arrived in Norway — if the species was here before then, it is not considered alien–except in the case of muskoxen and wild boar “which had lived in Norway in prehistoric time and then reintroduced at a much later point in time.” If we compare the law definition with this report’s use, we see that “existing naturally” as specified in the law takes on a time perspective that it didn’t previously have. Now a species is not natural if it was not in Norway as of 1800 whether or not it had been there previously.

The thing is, people didn’t used to think this way about time. In the writings of Adolf Hoel, he makes it clear that he is bringing back muskox to Norway, where they previously had been. “It means so much more that muskoxen have lived in our land during and even after the ending of the Ice Age,” he wrote in 1929. In 1930, he lauded the project as “also interesting that muskoxen will again be a part of the Norwegian fauna.” For Hoel, the muskox was not an alien species, but a native species coming home.

There has been much criticism as of late about historians thinking too short term (see Guldi & Armitage’s The History Manifesto, although I’m not saying I agree with their methods or findings), but I think the natural sciences are much more guilty of that kind of short-term thinking. I get the feeling that many scientists are trying to keep things they way they are right now or recover what has only recently been lost (this is, after all, the definition of conservation biology). In the Alien Species report’s box shown above, the authors made the point that 1800 was chosen because data was more available after that. While it may be true that there is more data, does that make the date a “good” one? I’m reminded of my critique of the conflicting IUCN definitions of reintroduction which seemed to privilege certain kinds of knowledge (specifically Western written records) as the only way of knowing if a species had previously been in an area. It becomes a question of what qualifies as historical when talking about natural history, where the data sources can reach long into the distant past.

As a closing thought, if Methusela, Sarv-e Abarkuh or the Llangernyw Yew, which are all over 4000 years old, were writing definitions of “alien” species, would the definitions would favour such short time scales? I doubt it. Being around a long time would change your perspective on what belongs and what doesn’t. Maybe we should start thinking more like trees.

Welcome to the Anthropocene

On Wednesday, I had a tour of the new exhibit Willkommen im Anthropozän (Welcome to the Anthropocene) at the Deutsches Museum in Munich, Germany. While the validity of the Anthropocene as a geologic time frame has been been debated, few would debate that human impact on the planet is wide and deep. Humans, unlike most other animal species, have the ability to radically transform the environment through technological artefacts (a subject which you can read more about in my recent article “Not by human hands”). Acknowledging the role of technology in the reshaping of Earth, it was fitting that the first large Anthropocene exhibit be hosted in a museum of science and technology. The physical exhibit, which has a companion online exhibit in English, organises its material onto six ‘islands’: urbanization, mobility, man & machine, nature, food, and evolution. One of these–nature–contains a reintroduction story.

The northern bald ibis, known as Waldrapp in German, as described by Conrad Gessner. Image from Icones avium omnium (1555).

The northern bald ibis, known as Waldrapp in German, as described by Conrad Gessner. Image from Icones avium omnium (1555).

The northern bald ibis (Geronticus eremita) is critically endangered with a main wild breeding colony in Morocco of less than 500 birds. Another separate small colony of 100 semi-wild birds (they are brought indoors for the winter) lives in Turkey and a small reintroduction project has begun in Spain. It is believed that the bird was widespread in central Europe until the 17th century, having been first described and drawn by the Swiss naturalist Conrad Gessner in 1555.

A large EU-funded reintroduction project “A Reason for Hope” run by Waldrappteam is attempting to reintroduce the ibis to the Germany-Austria border region. The birds, however, are migratory, which means that the reintroduced animals need to be taught how to migrate to their wintering grounds in Tuscany. A human-led migration using a microlight craft was used in 2014 to train young birds where to fly in future years. The birds are tracked with GPS units and the movements of all of the reintroduced animals can be monitored online.

In the Welcome to the Anthropocene exhibit, the visitor encounters one of the birds who didn’t make it. The northern bald ibis is suspended within a plastic case in flight. It still has its GPS transmitter attached.

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Reintroduction stories are quintessentially products of a world dominated by humans. They epitomise the Anthropocene in three ways. First, in most reintroduction projects, the reason for the species’ decline and regional demise is linked to humans, either directly through activities like hunting or indirectly with greater landscape scale change or climate change. Second, humans are the ones making the decision and taking the action to breed or capture, relocate, and monitor the animals. It is humans who decide where the animals should live or, in other words, where they belong. Thirdly, human technologies play a vital part in the relocation–whether that’s boxes which hold the animals during transport, flying contraptions that they follow to the wintering grounds, or monitoring devices to keep track of them afterward. Regardless of what is happening to the geologic strata under the ground, nature aboveground is being shaped and reshaped by humans. Welcome to the Anthropocene.

Fear of disease

The wild beavers living on the River Otter (an ironic name) in Devon, England may get to stay put, but then again, they may not. I’ve been following the developments about these beavers since their presence was confirmed in January 2014. Basically, these beavers were released by someone without a proper permit, possibly even before 2009, and have now established themselves to the extent that they have had kits in the wild.

When DEFRA and Natural England, the environmental authority in England, got confirmation of the beavers’ existence, they decided to remove them. Back in May, there were reports that DEFRA would kill (politely termed ‘cull’) the Devon beavers, which raised many objections from environmentalist groups. Private ‘write-in’ protest campaigns were started to express citizen displeasure at a cull attempt, especially since it would follow in the footsteps of a ridiculously unsuccessful and unpopular badger cull. Friends of the Earth sent a pre-action letter to Natural England in October challenging the potential cull because of the European beaver’s protected status under EU law. Now it appears that DEFRA may not cull the animals if it turns out that they are free from Echinococcus Multilocularis (EM), an internal tapeworm parasite which is transmittable to humans. (I’ll add that correspondence available as part of an FOI release indicates that DEFRA had not planned to kill the animals unless they had EM.)

Echinococcus parasite from a dog. Manual of Pathological Anatomy (1875), page 218. https://archive.org/stream/manualofpatholog00jone

Echinococcus parasite from a dog. Manual of Pathological Anatomy (1875), page 218.

The developments are interesting to me because of the way that beavers are talked about as belonging or not in the discussions. In this case, the belongingness of the beavers apparently hinges on disease. If they are free of EM, they belong; if they aren’t, they don’t. The problem with this criterion is that it requires testing and the only definitive test for EM is post-mortem. There are possibilities for an ante-mortem test for beavers, but it is unproven (possible non-lethal testing is also discussed in one of the FOI documents by the Royal Zoological Society). So if DEFRA actually wants to confirm that a beaver does or doesn’t have EM, they would have to kill it.

This comes down to a question of risk–and to whom. It involves a remote but possible risk that the beavers could be carrying EM (one captive beaver in Great Britain was diagnosed with EM in 2006), which might spread. Although foxes are the primary host for EM, nobody is talking about the danger to foxes–it’s all about potential risk to humans. The interesting thing is that according to the FOI documents, the agency Public Health England thinks that the Devon beavers do not greatly increase the risk of spreading EM, which is much more likely to come from imported pets. But the risk is there, so it has been latched upon by DEFRA in their discourse as a reason to get rid of these beavers.

If you read the press now, you get the impression that the concern about beavers is about disease, but is it really? In a press report from May, a Defra spokesperson is quoted as saying:

Beavers have not been an established part of our wildlife for the last 500 years. Our landscape and habitats have changed since then and we need to assess the impact they could have.

This argument is a tried and true one for the anti-reintroduction sentiment in Britain, but it really doesn’t have anything to do with the disease question. It may be that the DEFRA response to the Devon beavers has more to do with the lack of permitting, i.e. the loss of authority, than anything else. As I discussed back in September, a graphic showing beavers as ‘non-native’ makes a ‘lack of permitting’ argument for this status. In the DEFRA statement above, the government wants to be the one ‘to assess the impact’ and give permission.

While I understand disease-avoidance, it would also seem prudent to consider whether or not there is real risk. Like targeting the raccoon dog in Sweden (also for EM) and the hysteria in the US over Ebola, imagined risks are often radically different than real ones. Wouldn’t it be a shame to erase beaver from Britain after it is finally brought back for nothing?

When did beaver become non-native in England?

BBC recently ran an article ‘Aliens among us: What strange species are making England home?’ It starts with some pretty obvious introductions of species from outside of England: terrapins, Aesculapian snakes, and North American skunks, But then it gets interesting. In the section ‘Settling In’, it says ‘dozens of non-native species are already successfully breeding in Britain’ then follows with a bulleted list that includes:

– Beavers have started breeding in the River Otter in Devon after being reintroduced. They were a common sight 400 years ago but were hunted to extinction.
– Another species doing well after reintroduction is the wild boar – there are thought to be more than 800 boar in the Forest of Dean.

Map accompanying the news article 'Aliens among us: What strange species are making England home?'

Map accompanying the news article ‘Aliens among us: What strange species are making England home?’

Beaver and wild boar are both shown on the map graphic in this section too.

I have to say I did a double-take when I saw this. The wild boar’s native status has been hotly contested in England, so it didn’t surprise me that someone might have placed wild boar in the non-native category–but beaver?

The article links to and seems to have gathered information from a personal website run by the birder and naturalist Mark Hows called ‘Alien Invaders – Europes Introduced Exotics’. On that website, there is a page for ‘reintroduced’ animals in addition to the ‘exotics and introduced’ pages. Hows does not make a direct claim that reintroduced animals like the beaver which is included in his list are non-native, but the fact that they appear on the website might have led the journalist to assume they were ‘alien invaders’ as the title would suggest. I myself wonder why a page on reintroduced animals is included on the website, since being reintroduced doesn’t imply either ‘introduced’ or ‘exotic’.

There are official UK documents stating that beaver are a ‘native’ species. In the Scotland Natural Heritage Information and Advisory Note ‘Re-introducing European beaver’ (1996), the section on why the beaver is being slated for reintroduction refers the EU Habitats Directive which requires that member states consider reintroducing listed species ‘which are native to their territory.’ Then the document lists beaver (Castor fiber), brown bear (Ursus arctos), lynx (Lynx lynx), wolf (Ursus lupus). With this, SNH is clearly claiming that beaver is a ‘native’ species. The Natural England report ‘The feasibility and acceptability of reintroducing the European beaver to England’ (2008) likewise also claims ‘Beavers are part of Britain’s native fauna’. There is no question that beaver previously existed in the UK, although the date of its disappearance is unclear (anything from 1500 to 1900 has been suggested).

However, there are also documents which soften the position. The Scottish Non-Native Species (NNS) Code of Practice (2012) distinguishes between ‘native’ species and those that are reintroduced:

Animals and plants that were once native in a location but have become extinct are considered to be “former natives” (except in the situation described at 3.13). For the purposes of the 1981 Act former natives are considered to be outwith their native range and it is therefore an offence to release a former native without a licence. The environment may have changed considerably since a former native was present as a species in Scotland and the impact of the former native species on the environment and on land use would need to be assessed before it can be released into the wild.

This distinction has a practical purpose–making it illegal to reintroduce animals without a licence. In spite of this document classifying an animal like a beaver as a ‘former native’,  it doesn’t make it ‘non-native’.

I think the BBC article reveals how unclear the terms ‘native’ and ‘non-native’ are. Are animals that once were ‘native’ somewhere still ‘native’ after they have been exterminated?  Is the ‘former native’ label a good one? Because the beavers currently in the wild in Devon were an ‘unlicensed’ reintroduction, are they ‘non-native’? When did beaver become non-native in England, if ever? The BBC article leaves more questions than answers.

Election day

Google doodle for Swedish election day, 14 September 2014

Google doodle for Swedish election day, 14 September 2014

It’s election day in Sweden. Elections for the parliament (Riksdag), county councils and municipal councils happen every four years, so it’s an important day in shaping the near future of Swedish society. As someone with foreign citizenship who has lived in Sweden more than 3 years, I am eligible to vote in the county and municipal elections, but not for the Riksdag. In fact, the only people who can vote in the Riksdag elections are Swedish citizens over the age of 18. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve lived in Sweden–if you’re not a citizen, you have no say in the national government. Interestingly, this is very different from who is eligible to decide on whether or not Scotland should remain part of the United Kingdom in their vote next week. In that election, anyone who is living in Scotland and is a citizen of Britain (which includes Scotland), a Commonwealth country (like Canada or Australia), or an EU country is eligible to vote. This is a much broader base of people who are considered eligible to have a say in the future of a country.

Voting eligibility is an interesting case of governmental authorities deciding about the ‘belongingness’ of people. It’s not all that different at its core than what happens with nonhumans. Governments, often through their environmental agencies and commissioned scientific reports, draw lines about which nonhumans are ‘native’ and which are not. Policies are made based on the history of a species–when it arrived within a given geographical area and/or when it disappeared. In essence, animals and plants are given ‘citizenship’ or ‘naturalisation’ status through these decisions.

A perfect example of this is the group of five muskoxen who crossed the border from Norway into Sweden in September 1971, which led to a debate about their status. They were immediately welcomed by the tourist industry. When a national postage stamp series titled ‘Sweden’s Mountains’ was issued in March 1984, the three images chosen were the angelica flowering plant, the lemming, and the muskox. The text printed in both Swedish and English with the first day issue shows the rapid integration of muskox:

In 1971 the musk-ox (Ovibos moschatus) came back to the Swedish fauna. The occasion can be seen as a return to the fold, and today there are some 30 animals in the province Härjedalen.

First day issue of the Swedish Fjällsvärld stamp series

First day issue of the Swedish Fjällsvärld stamp series

 

When the muskox population appeared to be in trouble in the 1980s because of inbreeding, the Green Party argued that because paleoarcheological finds of muskox had been made in Sweden,

the species belongs truly to Sweden’s original inhabitants.…We have no right to abandon the muskox.

Adolf Hoel had expressed similar opinions about the muskox, arguing in several of his publications that part of the reason for bringing the animals to Svalbard and Dovre was because they had lived in Norway at the end of the Ice Age. With their reintroduction, ‘muskox are again a component of the Norwegian fauna’, according to Hoel.

The official Parliamentary response to the Green’s motion reveals that everyone was not in agreement about the muskox’s ‘naturalization’. The Parliamentary statement ‘Swedish Environmental Politics’ issued in 1991 addressed the motion, claiming that while the animals had value in the tourism sector,

muskoxen have been extinct for such a long time in Scandinavia that they can no longer be seen as a part of our natural fauna.

A parliamentary motion made in 2000 as well as a draft Threatened Species Action Plan for the muskox were all denied. This debate has created a somewhat contradictory status for the animal. The species is not eligible for listing as an endangered species in Sweden because it is classified as ‘introduced’ in the Red List, yet there is a regional plan that calls for its conservation. Its status is in many ways the same as mine in Swedish elections: it gets included in local and regional affairs, but not in national ones.

Photograph with caption: State forester Johansson cheering up one of his new ‘countrymen’. Printed in Axel Anderson, Då bävern återbördades till Västerbotten, Västerbotten: Västerbottens Läns Hembygdsförenings Årsbok 1924-1925

Photograph with caption: State forester Johansson cheering up one of his new ‘countrymen’. Printed in Axel Anderson, Då bävern återbördades till Västerbotten, Västerbotten: Västerbottens Läns Hembygdsförenings Årsbok 1924-1925

This is very different than how the beaver was treated when it came back to Sweden after an absence of 50 years. Sponsors (or godfathers) were named for the reintroduced beavers and local contacts sent in frequent ‘beaver reports’. When the Västerbottens läns jaktvårdsforening reintroduced beavers in 1924 in northern Sweden, the relationship between the hunters and beavers is described as co-citizenship. One photograph shows a member of the reintroduction group with a beaver captioned as: State forester Johansson cheering up one of his new ‘countrymen’. The beaver belonged in Sweden.

The racoon dog is on the opposite side of the spectrum of belonging, with concerted efforts to keep it out of Sweden. The origin of the species in Asia, rather than where the individual animals alive right now have been born, makes it foreign. As animals shift their ranges, whether because of climate change or human introduction, we have to ask ourselves: At what point should an animal be ‘naturalised’? Are the standards for ‘native’ based on species history really good ones? If we applied the standard that is applied to many animal species to voters, only those with family in Sweden before 1800 would be able to vote.

Animals don’t get a vote, but thinking about how they are framed as belonging or not might let us think a little harder about how people are also framed as belonging or not. An individual’s history–where he/she was born, where he/she lives, how long he/she has lived in a particular place–all factor into whether or not the individual is allowed to vote. Are those the best standards to say if an individual should have a say in government? At what point do people belong to a community?

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