The Return of Native Nordic Fauna

A research blog exploring animal reintroduction history by Dolly Jørgensen

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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?

Giving names to give stories

Today is a special anniversary. On September 1, 1914, the last of a species died in captivity in the Cincinnati Zoo. As we mark the 100th year anniversary of the passing of Martha the passenger pigeon, there has been an outpouring of press coverage of the bird’s extinction. The Smithsonian has a special exhibit featuring Martha’s taxidermied remains and there are a slew of other museums having passenger pigeon exhibits. There is a film From Billions to Nonea web-based project, and a brand new book A Message from Martha all dedicated to sharing the extinction story as a way promoting a sustainable futureMartha even has her own twitter account @MarthathePigeon (which is run by the author of A Message from Martha). There are lots of great news articles out this week to make the centenary — I can recommend that you read the full historical story in ‘100 years late, the passenger pigeon still haunts us’ and the connections between the extinction and current bird populations in ‘Saving our birds’. So I am not going to recount the passenger pigeon story here.

Martha, the last known passenger pigeon, on display at the National Museum of Natural History (US) in 1967. From the Smithsonian Institution collection.

Martha, the last known passenger pigeon, on display at the National Museum of Natural History (US) in 1967. From the Smithsonian Institution collection.

But what I would like to offer is an observation about names. In all of the passenger pigeon coverage, a name looms large. The last surviving passenger pigeon was given a name, Martha, and that appears everywhere in these articles. Her partner, who we don’t hear about as much since he unfortunately died four years before her and the pair never had chicks, was named George. They were named after the first president of the US, George Washington, and his wife Martha. A patriotic choice for pigeons–you might have expected it for bald eagles–that we can read as a recognition at the time of a national loss with the death of the bird. If you look at the photograph of the old exhibition of Martha at the Smithsonian, you see that her name is more prominent than her species. If you glance at the sign, it says MARTHA … EXTINCT. This is a personal story.

The thing is, humans have a tendency to name endlings like Martha. Some endlings I know of in addition to Martha are: Lonesome George, the Pinta Island tortoise; Benjamin, the thylacine; Celia, the bucardo; Incas, the Carolina parakeet; and Booming Ben, the Heath Hen.

Lonesome George in 2007, the last Pinta Island giant tortoise. Photo by putneymark on flickr.

Lonesome George in 2007, the last Pinta Island giant tortoise. He died in 2012. Photo by putneymark on flickr.

I believe that naming animals encourages us to tell a different kind of story about them than unnamed animals. As I observed at the Museum of Natural History (London), individual stories are told about Guy the Gorilla and Chi-Chi the Panda, but not about the unnamed animal specimens that represent whole species, even if those species are extinct. Personal histories are easier to recount if a name is attached.

When the small group of muskoxen migrated to Sweden from Norway, one of the first things people did was to give them names. The five immigrants were: Kari (1965-84/5), Åsfrid (1968-87), Nils (1969-84), Kjell (1971-76), Ulrika (1971-1992). I know those years of birth and death because each of the muskoxen has a short bio available (like this one for Kari). They got names because they were rare. No one names all the muskoxen in the Dovre mountains, but when a small group broke away, they became noteworthy. Although some wildlife are tagged with numbers and tracked, this is different than giving them a name. The name creates a sense of being an individual, of being special.

Naming as a symbol of specialness and a way of telling stories is not unique to animals. When I visited the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC a few years after it opened in 1993, we were each given an Identification Card with a Holocaust victim’s picture and name. The point of the Card was to make it personal.  I’ll never forget it, because the card I got was a young woman named Dolores – which is my real name. Reading that card was an intense moment. Not that far away, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is likewise all about names, with names of servicemen and women inscribed on a seemingly endless wall of black stone. Names are listed to bring the individuality of life and death to the fore. Instead of just mass casualties, they become individual stories. It’s like when you donate to a fund to end hunger or build a school or provide a goat to a village and you get back a picture of the person and his/her name so that you know who you helped. Names matter.

Martha the last passenger pigeon on display at the Smithsonian Institute, 2008. Photo by brdkrvr70 (

Martha the last passenger pigeon on display at the Smithsonian Institute, 2008. Photo by brdkrvr70 on flickr.

Now back to Martha. It matters that she has a name because the storytelling about passenger pigeon extinction gets a personal touch. Rather than being a story about billions to none, it is in fact a story about billions to one — and then the one dies. The tragedy of losing an individual hits home in a different way than the loss of an undefined mass.

I know that some people object to giving names to a bird like Martha. They think it is a human attempt to make a non-human human, but I don’t think it does. I think naming makes the animal an individual, which is different than anthropomorphising it. Giving a creature a name makes humans recognise it as an individual with a history. In the recognition of an individual’s history, we come face to face with an individual’s worth because we can tell and hear its stories.

A bird in the hand

At the 2nd World Congress for Environmental History earlier this week in Guimarães, Portugal, I heard a paper by Emily Scott (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) on the art film Raptor’s Rapture from 2012. The film juxtaposes a live griffon vulture and a flautist playing a 35,000 year old flute made from a griffon vulture bone. You can see a short clip here and listen to a bit of the flute here. Scott discussed the way that the film bridges temporalities (with a prehistoric flute played in the past now played in present and a live vulture in the same room as a bone from its ancestor) and bridges species (the vulture and human are simultaneously there in both past and present). My interest was particularly piqued when Scott mentioned the griffon vulture has been reintroduced in several places, so I’ve done a little reading about them.

Griffon vulture illustration in Coloured figures of the birds of the British Islands, issued by Lord Lilford, 1885-1897.

Griffon vulture illustration in Coloured figures of the birds of the British Islands, issued by Lord Lilford, 1885-1897.


Griffon vultures (Gyps fulvus) are carrion-eating large birds that live in a fairly large range across northern Africa, the Middle East, southern Europe, and India. Although the population is high enough now to be considered a ‘least concern’ species by IUCN, their numbers had markedly declined in the 19th and 20th centuries, mainly because of anti-predator persecution. The antagonistic human-vulture relationship is captured well in the poem ‘1 July 1972. Gyps fulvus’ which I ran across in the Brown Library Digital Library:


Clearly there was no love lost for vultures in 1972 for some people. But at the same time, others were planning to reintroduce the bird in its lost European territories. A reintroduction effort was started in France in 1968, but it took until 1981 to get their first birds from Spain to release. The number of griffon vultures in France had probably been down to 50 breeding pairs, but he highly successful reintroduction efforts doubled that number by 2003. Bulgaria followed suit with a reintroduction project beginning in 2000. The project has had mixed success and failure and continues to the present.

The relationship between human and vulture in Raptor’s Rapture was intimate yet distant. The human interacted with the prehistoric vulture bone but not the vulture in the room. In the reintroduction projects, the relationship is radically different. A video about the vulture’s return in Bulgaria can be contrasted with Raptor’s Rapture. It shows humans breeding vultures in zoos, moving young birds to new homes, holding them up to pose for pictures, and cheering them on to fly free. Human technology looms large in the video: the crates used to move the vultures, the temporary adjustment aviaries, the GPS trackers attached to each bird.

These griffon vultures have been taken into human hands–and, I would argue, moulded and shaped into something more than just vultures in the process. They come to embody hopes and dreams. They represent ‘conservation’ as an ideal. They become intertwined in sociotechnological systems and become technological hybrids. In short, reintroduction demands that humans engage with vultures beyond the disembodied bone flute to the living bird itself.

A new hope

The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History opened a new exhibit this week ‘Once there were billions‘. The exhibit is timed to coincidence with the death of the last passenger pigeon, Martha, 100 years ago. The extinction of North American birds, notably the great auk, Carolina parakeet, and heath hen in addition to the passenger pigeon, is featured in both historical illustrations and modern artistic works. Martha herself in taxidermied form will be on display, but you can also see her in 3D from the comfort of your home. The exhibit is intended to ‘reveal the fragile connections between species and their environment’ as well as recognizing ‘the tragedy of modern extinction by immortalizing North American birds that have been driven to extinction’.

Martha, the last known passenger pigeon, on display at the National Museum of Natural History (US) in 1967. From the Smithsonian Institution collection.

Martha, the last known passenger pigeon, on display at the National Museum of Natural History (US) in 1967. From the Smithsonian Institution collection.

Not to disparage this exhibit–my guess is that it is marvelous and moving–but I can’t help but wonder if a tragedy is the right story to be telling here. I know that Thom van Dooren and Deborah Rose have written beautifully on the role of mourning and loss in extinction, and I see their point. At the same time, negative messages don’t actually go that far toward action. They may increase awareness but is that enough?

On June 16th, George Monbiot wrote his column in the Guardian with the title ‘Saving the world should be based on promise, not fear‘. In it, he made the argument that a sense of threat doesn’t increase our willingness to give to others, but rather only to save ourselves. He said he had come to realise that environmental messages based on negative emotions, particularly fear, are unproductive: ‘Terrify the living daylights out of people, and they will protect themselves at the expense of others and of the living world.’ That’s why, he says, we need approaches like rewilding that are based on positive change:

Expounding a positive vision should be at the centre of attempts to protect the things we love. An ounce of hope is worth a ton of despair.

I often disagree with Monbiot’s approach to environmental issues, but I think he’s right. Especially after reading Jacob Hamblin’s Arming Mother Nature: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism and discussing it on the Environmental Humanities Book Chat, I have come to see how contemporary negative environmental discourse was influenced by a particular post-WW2 situation and hasn’t always been productive. The turn toward ‘hopeful histories’ has actually been on my mind for a while. For several months, I have been working on developing a joint project with my husband Finn Arne Jørgensen and Michael Egan (McMaster University, Canada) to try and turn the environmental history scholarly narrative, which has predominately been a declensionist doom-and-gloom story, toward more positive examples.

From the standpoint of this project on reintroduction, rethinking the dominant ‘the world is going to hell in a hand basket’ narrative is a must. What the beaver reintroduction in particular shows is that positive action along with positive thinking made a real difference. People in Sweden in the 1920s and 30s recognised the loss of the beaver, but no one lamented the beaver’s possible complete extinction like they probably would now. While the gravity of the situation was clear, they framed their actions in terms of positive stories about cultural history with beavers, the promise of a remade world for their children, and the ability of everyone to contribute. And it worked. Motivated people, mostly average everyday people, brought the beaver back.

Perhaps we are at crucial junction in the practice of environmental history–and the environmental movement as a whole–in terms of the stories we decide to tell. Perhaps a few scholarly rebels can help reshape the world. It is now up to use to bring about a new hope.

Lost and found

I saw an image tweeted a few weeks back about beaver reintroduction that I think is worthy of some reflection.

Poster circulated on Twitter by user @AtmStreetArt

Poster circulated on Twitter by user @AtmStreetArt


The poster is in the genre of ‘Lost pets’ that we all recognise from posters on street lamps, bus stops, and public boards. The headline ‘LOST’ in all caps catches our attention. We recognise that the animal shown in the image has been ‘lost’. Below the picture we get information about its name, when it was last seen, what it means to the people who have lost it, and the reward. The only thing missing that we might expect on a ‘lost’ poster is a name & phone number to contact if found. (This would be a smart addition if an organisation wanted to start putting these up somewhere.)

There are all kinds of layers to this poster worthy of discussion.

The first thing that caught my eye was the invocation of ‘lost’ and the use of ‘much-missed’. The beaver’s absence in Britain is being put forward as an emotional issue. There is a feeling of desperation–of not being able to find a loved one. This is a sentiment that appears in much of the literature about the return of beavers to the UK. ‘Lost’ as a characteristic of the beaver is common. For example, the Scottish Natural Heritage public consultation report from 1998 claimed ‘beavers are a missing element of our native biodiversity and were lost entirely through human activities’, and a newspaper headline from 2005 announced ‘long lost beaver will soon give a dam about the Highlands’.

But it is not the cry of mourning that Thom van Dooren has discussed as an appropriate response to extinction (see this text and his comments on the radio program Undoing Extinction). There is regret that the beaver cannot be found, but there is no sorrow that comes with extinction. The poster is instead a cry for help. The message is that the much-missed beaver can be brought home if only the viewer of the poster helps to look for it. As a 2008 newspaper article stated about beavers in Scotland, ‘they were killed off more than 400 years ago, and snubbed by the last government – but now they are coming home at last.’ The beaver can be brought back.

The second thing I noticed was the specificity of the date. I’ve never seen the date 1587 on anything related to the beaver in Britain. The scientific articles generally mention that beavers in Wales were recorded in 1188 and that they probably existed in Scotland until the sixteenth century, but exact dates have proved elusive. Newspapers have been much more varied in their coverage of beaver extinction, claiming anything from 12th century to 19th century. So why 1587? Mary Queen of Scots was executed by Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Drake led the Cadiz raid to defeat the Spanish fleet in a preemptive strike before the real naval battle of 1588, and … well, I’m sure there were more things, but nothing about beavers in any case. If I was putting a date for British beavers (as opposed to Scottish ones), I might have picked 1188 since it is at least a documented citing in Wales.

Finally, there is the reward. Interestingly, the reward is about ecosystem change and that is indeed what beavers do best: make wetlands. It’s not entirely clear from the poster why we should want wetlands and what they are ‘fabulously rich’ in. (Certainly they are rich in mosquitos, but I know they are rich in many plant, insect, and animal species too.) I have noticed through an analysis of newspaper coverage of UK beaver reintroduction that it is quite unusual to make an ecosystem argument for bringing them back–most often the argument is simply that they are extinct and shouldn’t be. So this is pretty unique in that regard.

In sum, ATM has made some interesting choices in putting together this ‘Lost’ poster. While taking some artistic liberties, the poster reflects much of the beaver reintroduction debates in Britain that centre on bringing back this ‘lost’ species. The question remains whether it will be found.

Connecting reintroduction and deextinction

Ever since I watched the TEDx DeExtinction event in March 2013, I’ve been thinking about how deextinction efforts need to consider the history of reintroductions if they are to be successful. I published a Viewpoint piece in Bioscience in September 2013 with some of those thoughts. Because of that publication and putting my opinions into the scholarly conversation, in the last couple of months, I’ve had the chance to talk with a couple journalists covering deextinction.

The June 2014 issue of Bioscience included “Extinction is forever … or is it?” by Leslie Ogden (available OpenAccess). When I talked to Leslie, I stressed the need to consider the destination of these animals being brought back. Because they will be going somewhere, and that somewhere probably has people in it, deextinction moves from a scientific question to a cultural question. Here’s the section of the article where Leslie talks about my work on reintroduction histories:

Reintroduction from captivity of organisms extinct in the wild already has precedents and an institutional basis in guidelines by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Spanning the breach from reintro­duction to de-extinction may be only a matter of time. Dolly Jørgensen, an environmental historian in the Department of Ecology and Environ­mental science at Umeå University, Sweden, who wrote about reintroduction and de-extinction in a 2013 issue of BioScience(doi:10.1093/bioscience/63.9.719), thinks that we need to look to history. Her research is focused on examining the history of the reintroduction to Sweden of the beaver, a species that was extinct in most of Europe by the end of the 1800s. She also studies the history of the musk ox, which was reintroduced from Greenland after being absent in Scandinavia for about 10,000 years. With media attention focused on the front end of the de-extinction debate (the making of the animal), Jørgensen (amused that she shares a name with the first cloned mammal), thinks we cannot ignore other aspects of the process. “If it’s ever going to be more than just a monster on display, then we have to think that it’s going to gosomewhere.” Jørgensen thinks that it is important to examine the pitfalls of reintroductions of the recent past. “If you look at cases where predators have tried to be reintroduced following periods of local extinction—like the lynx in Scotland and wolves in Europe—what you see is that it’s a very contested space,” she says.

For the European beaver, remnant populations of the decimated species existed in small pockets in several countries, one of which was Norway. A passionate county museum director, Eric Festin, had the idea to repopulate an area named Beaver River Valley (Bjurälvsdalen in Swedish) with its long-missing namesake. The reintroduction of less than 100 beavers between 1922 and 1940 has resulted in more than 100,000 beavers now, which Jørgensen says makes it the most successful reintroduction ever. But the consequences include the beavers’ habit of damming, which creates newly flooded areas, which, in turn, has an impact on landowners. There are also conflicts with forestry, “because beavers like trees too,” says Jørgensen. It’s not all bad, she says, but reintroductions have both positive and negative outcomes that may not be foreseen. “You have to be dynamic when a species is actually successful, because you may end up with a problem,” she says. “History can be an example to look to, though not necessarily a guide.” And whether or not we can achieve—or want to achieve—de-extinction, says Jørgensen “is more than just a scientific question; it’s a cultural question too.”

I was happy to help Leslie get permission to reproduce a great picture of the first reintroduction of beaver in Sweden alongside this section. I think it shows the cultural work of reintroduction in action.

"Undoing Forever" radio program on CBC Ideas

“Undoing Forever” radio program on CBC Ideas

I also had the opportunity to be interviewed for the radio program “Undoing forever” by Britt Wray, which was aired as part of the Canadian Broadcast Company series Ideas on 19 June 2014 (the audio is available to listen to online). This was my first real radio interview: I got to go to the SVT Radio station and sit in a studio with a headset and mic and technician in the next room while Britt and her production crew sat in Canada. It was great!

One of my quotes is in the opening sequence: “We need to be talking about, oh, not just technically could make it or not, but: Where’s it going to go? What are going to be the challenges? How are people going understand this?” Then my part of the interview starts just after the 43 minute mark of the program. I wanted to stress that while bringing a species back to life may sound like a wonderful idea from afar, we have to look at the social and cultural issues that appear locally. There are always challenges to living with/near animals. Environmental philosopher Thom van Dooren also appears in the program immediately after me. He stressed the need to mourn extinct animals in order to be able to learn from mistakes.

This particular program was heavily weighted toward the passenger pigeon because several of the scientists interviewed are directly involved in that research. As I listened to their comments in the program about the billions of passenger pigeons that once flew in the US, I couldn’t help but think of all the problems they would cause today. Do scientists really think there would be a place in the US for huge flocks of birds to go? I don’t. I think they would end up being labelled pests and efforts would be taken to greatly limit their spread. It wouldn’t matter that they had once been extinct and all kinds of time and money had been spent to bring them back. This is the reality of reintroduction: people are perfectly happy with animals as long as they don’t get in the way.

Racoon dogs in the Anthropocene

The June/July 2014 issue of Filter, a Swedish magazine, features an extended 23-page article “Att jaga sin egen svans” about the arrival of raccoon dogs (called mårdhund in Swedish) in the country and the attempts to stop it from spreading. I had the pleasure of being interviewed for the article by the journalist Madelene Engstrand Andersson–my first interview completely in Swedish.

Raccoon dog at the Riga Zoo. Photo by FA Jørgensen.

Raccoon dog at the Riga Zoo. Photo by FA Jørgensen.

The article discusses the Swedish program to eradicate raccoon dogs before they become permanently established in Sweden. Raccoon dogs (Nyctereutes procyonoides), a member of the Canidae family which also contains our pet dogs, are from East Asia. For a cultural reference, I can note that the rebellion group in the Japanese movie Pom Poko are raccoon dogs (tanuki). They were imported to Russia in 1929 for fur farming and some got loose. When they moved into Finland, they rapidly expanded. In 1970, 800 raccoon dogs were killed; in 2011, almost 180,000 were killed!

As you can imagine, Swedish conservation and hunting groups have been worried about the eventual spread of the animal into Sweden. The first reproductive pair were observed in along the Swedish-Finnish border in 2006. The objections to the raccoon dog have been both that it is a threat to biodiversity and it is a disease carrier (rabies and dog tapeworm). The official position of the Swedish EPA is that raccoon dogs must be stopped from spreading in Sweden. This has meant in practice hunting and trapping of the animals, including many found by catching one animal, radio tagging it, and then tracking it back to the larger group. A network of wildlife cameras has been used to track animals crossing into Sweden. Interestingly, although disease always comes up as a concern, the veterinary testing of captured and killed animals during the EU-funded “Management of the invasive Raccoon Dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides) in the north-European countries” project (2010-2013) has never found one infected with rabies or tapeworm.

When the journalist called to talk about this, I spoke about ‘belonging’ and how humans determine whether or not an animal should be considered native. I spoke about the muskox in this regard–that there has been a debate in Sweden about whether or not the reintroduced population really ‘belongs’ to the Swedish fauna. I also wanted to stress that national boundaries don’t matter to an animal or a group of animals. Those are purely human societal boundaries. Here’s a short translation of that section of the article:

We can also think about what is actually native (inhemskt) and what is foreign (utländskt). Animals and plants don’t care about national boundaries.

“The only thing animals do is look for a place where they can live well,” says Dolly Jørgensen. “They want to have good food, a good place for their offspring to grow up at. So should people have the right to decide if they have the right to come here or not? This is to a high degree an Anthropocene question. We move animals around and think we have control, but we don’t.”

Raccoon dog display at the Naturhistoriska riksmuseet in Stockholm. Photo by D. Jørgensen.

Raccoon dog display at the Naturhistoriska riksmuseet in Stockholm. Photo by D. Jørgensen.

Should we say that if the raccoon dog arrives here on its own, it belongs? I recently saw a display at the Naturhistorisk riksmusset in Stockholm of Sweden’s ‘New species’ (Nya arter) including the Canada goose, the brown rat, and the map butterfly. The point of this case within the Swedish fauna room was to bring up species whose ‘belonging’ status is being questioned. The raccoon dog and its history was featured in the case with the question ‘On its way into the Swedish fauna?’ This indeed is the question.

It seems to me that the Swedish nature protection and hunting groups decided that the raccoon dog is threat to biodiversity (whatever that means) even before studies of the actual ecological effects of raccoon dogs in Sweden are known. The justification of the raccoon dog culling in the EU Life project report is that even though raccoon dogs are not doing damage now, they will if we don’t control them.

I don’t doubt that there will be effects if raccoon dogs spread in Sweden, but I wonder if we have the right to judge those effects. Don’t raccoon dogs as a species have the right to succeed and spread just like humans? In the Anthropocene, who are we to harshly judge the survivors?

Reintroduction and European nationalism

The results in the EU parliamentary election aren’t yet in tonight, but early returns show a rise in right-leaning nationalistic parties like National Front in France which is going to come out with around 25% of the vote. These parties are basically anti-immigrant and anti-Europe. Could this rise in nationalism roll over to reintroduction projects?

This week a group of 17 European bison (Bison bonasus) were released in Romania (see the Guardian story with video). These animals join the bison from two prior reintroductions–a herd of 5 in 2012 and 5 more in 2013. Bison have been extinct in the Carpathian mountains of Romania since 1762. They survived in the wild in Poland until 1927. After that, only captive animals remained. A breeding program and subsequent reintroduction has been quite successful: there are now over 3,000 bison running wild in Europe, according to a WWF article.

A cartoon about the reintroduction appeared in the Guardian on the 23rd of May drawn by First Dog on the Moon (a political commentary cartoonist from Australia). The cartoon centred on Europe’s nationalism. In the first frame, the history of the bison is recounted with the extinction blamed on Poland represented by the Polish flag. The extinction in Poland is contrasted with the reintroduction in Romania.

First frame of the cartoon from First Dog on the Moon about the bison reintroduction in Romania, 23 May 2014

First frame of the cartoon from First Dog on the Moon about the bison reintroduction in Romania, 23 May 2014


Several of the following panels have national overtones, like the Iberian lynx saying ‘Hola’ and the beaver in a Scottish flag t-shirt. The last panel contrasts the willingness to bring nationally-extinct animals back to these countries with the growing nationalistic sentiments among voters in the EU.

First Dog on the Moon Bison last

While the “Belgian” pine caterpillars and “Bulgarian” water voles in the cartoon aren’t species targeted for reintroduction, those that are almost always cross national lines. Whether it’s beavers brought from Norway to Sweden in the 1920s or the bison sent to Romania from stock bred in Sweden, extinction (and thus reintroduction) is most often defined by an animal being absent within a country’s borders. Politics then necessarily plays a part.

Political ties make some reintroductions possible because animals become available. For example, the muskoxen brought to Norway came from East Greenland, which was at the time controlled by Norway. Such an arrangement even led to justificatons of the reintroduction. John Angard, who was local manager for flock, wrote in 1958 about the muskox reintroduction:

In Norway, there is one find that shows that muskox lived here in prehistoric times. This find came from Dovre. In addition to the fact that Greenland in its time has been Norwegian, one can claim on this ground that the animal has come back to its home range.

Political ties also encourage (or discourage) reintroductions. Many of the species targeted by reintroduction projects in Europe, including the beaver and wolf, are listed in the EU Habitats Directive under Annex IV ‘Animal and Plant Species of Community Interest in Need of Strict Protection’. Under Article 22 of the Directive, the member states are required to ‘study the desirability of re-introducing species in Annex IV that are native to their territory where this might contribute to their conservation’. National politics and borders enter into the Annex IV list with qualifiers about certain countries–beavers are not protected in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Finland or Sweden, for example. But since the UK is not on the exemption list, those wanting the beaver reintroduction in Scotland and Wales can turn to this international legislation for support. The lists themselves are products of negotiated politics.

Nationalism enters into many of these discussions, as nations legally define what species belong and which do not. At base, the national Red Lists (desirable species) and Black Lists (undesirable species) are nation-building projects seeking to define a nation’s nature. And if a country doesn’t have one of the desirable species because it has become extinct, then reintroduction is a way to rectify the problem. As I pointed out in my last post, patriotism is a part of the reintroduction stories I’ve worked on. Reintroduction serves a national good.

As I think through these issues, I can’t help wondering: Are those “scientific” exercises of defining native and non-native species all that different from nationalistic politics that define people as belonging or not? Are these two sides of the same new nationalistic coin?

Reintroduction and compensation

One of the most contentious issues with modern reintroduction efforts is compensation for damage caused by the newly returned animals. This came up this week with a heated discussion about reintroduced white-tailed eagles in Scotland that might take lambs. The eagles had died out in the late 1910s and were reintroduced beginning in 1975. Although populations have been established, there are still only about 40 breeding pairs. Inevitably discussion about eagles and their acceptability gets ugly when monetary compensation for farmers who might loose livestock to the birds of prey comes up. An official report for the Scottish government confirmed that white-tailed eagles take lambs on the Island of Mull, so recent claims about lamb losses may be true. Some of the commentators on the recent articles mention of a previous compensation scheme for killed lambs that ended in 2013, but I haven’t been able to find official documentation about it.

In my research on the muskox reintroduction in Norway, I’ve seen that the question of damage compensation is not a new development.

The list of expenses that Kristian Bø claimed should be compensated in his letter dated 18 November 1953. In the Norwegian Archives in Tromsø. Thanks to Peder Roberts for getting the copy for me.

The list of expenses that Kristian Bø claimed should be compensated in his letter dated 18 November 1953. In the Norwegian Archives in Tromsø. Thanks to Peder Roberts for getting the copy for me.

On 18 November 1953, Kristian Bø, a farmer in Lesja, sent a letter to the Norwegian Polar Institute claiming damages from a muskox which visited his farm two times over the summer. The muskox attacked a heifer and scared away two goats (one was never found). His total claim was for 1,841 kr. which he demanded be “sent to me immediately“. The letter was sent via the Lesja sheriff who confirmed the said damages.

Anders K. Orvin of the Polar Institute sent a reply. First, he noted that it was actually not the Polar Institute but rather Arktisk Næringsdrift which had been paid by the State to import the muskoxen. (We should note that Arktisk Næringsdrift was a business set up under the Polar Institute, so while technically separate entity, they are related.) Second, he said that such a claim was quite unusual: “It is not normal that the State will pay compensation for farm animals being scared by a wild animal, and it is also not at all clear that the goat which is missing was killed by a muskox.” Orvin agreed to write to the Ministry of Agriculture to find out their position on the matter, but cautioned that:

It would obviously be unsustainable to have muskoxen in this country if there is a risk of compensation because people or farm animals are scared when they see oxen.

Orvin wrote to the Ministry of Agriculture in December 1953. He made the point that as far as he knew, the State didn’t provide compensation for damage by other wild animals like moose and bear, so he didn’t think paying for muskox damage was appropriate. Arktisk Næringsdrift had set out the calves in 1947, so “obviously [the company] cannot be responsible to animals which were set out so many years ago.”

The Ministry replied that the government would not pay any compensation, but the company should know that if a muskox caused damage, the property owner could kill it without penalty if a special permit was obtained.

With this reply in hand, Orvin wondered in a letter to John Angard (the local man who watched over the muskoxen) if it might be best to pay off Bø, even though the company “has no obligation to do so.” In the end, his reply to Bø in March 1954 said that neither the Ministry nor the company would give compensation:

At the moment that the animals were set out, they became wild animals. The company has no ownership of them and cannot be legally responsible if muskoxen scare farm animals. The animals must come under the same rules that apply for other wild animals.

As you can imagine, Bø was not at all pleased with the reply. He came back with a letter full of questions:

Do I understand correctly that these animals are ownerless? It is then strange that Sheriff Fagersand refused to shoot the ox. Hasn’t the law compensated damage that the same type of ox has done on other farms? Or has it not given any compensation? This is in any case certain: if a muskox comes again, I will not take any chance with my cows and goats. I will shoot it down in an instant.

Orvin’s response tried to be diplomatic, expressing regret that Bø had with the muskox, but he was also clear that the reason the sheriff couldn’t shoot the animal is because it is a protected animal under the law. Orvin also made sure to say that importing a muskox costs several thousand kroner, urging the farmer not to kill them. So the answer was no compensation.

Yet later in the month of March, John Torske of Grødalen notified Orvin that his cow was killed by a muskox. On the 27th, Orvin responded that 1000 kr was being sent via post as compensation, but he made a caveat:

With respect to Arktisk Næringsdrift, it is true that we have paid for damages caused by muskoxen while John Angard was watching over the animals. We have done this totally on our own initiative in order to keep the animals under some kind of control in the beginning. The company has only a little payment from the State for importing calves from Greenland and watch them until they are set out. As soon as calves are out on the land, we have no ownership of them anymore.

Orvin seems to have made a distinction between the claims of Bø and Torske because the latter resulted in the direct death of the cow. But maybe Orvin had decided that it was just not worth fighting the claims.

What this case of compensation shows is that there is a long tradition of conflict between reintroduced animals and people who live near them. Property loss (which equates to monetary losses) are a central part of this conflict. While a wild animal may have no owner, there is a sentiment by the local populace that the government should be responsible for damage caused by it. This most clearly applies to a recently returned animal. How governments handle compensation conflict is a central aspect of acceptance or rejection of reintroduction attempts.

Outside of the lines

This week the Norwegian Nature Inspectorate (Statens naturoppsyn, SNO) with permission of its parent entity the Norwegian Environment Agency (Miljødirektoratet) killed a herd of muskoxen. All 10 members of the herd were females (it’s not clear if some were calves), and all were put down without discrimination.

So what has this herd of muskoxen done? They had crossed the line.

Map showing the commune of Lesja and the muskox management area

The Miljødirektoratet has a management plan for the muskoxen in Dovre. The plan was first suggested in 1988 as a way of ensuring a viable population and to define how the spread of muskoxen would be handled. After much negotiation, the plan was finally approved in 1996, and then updated in 2006. The plan designates an area of 340 square kilometers as the allowable muskox range (kjerneområde). The communes of Oppdal, Dovre and Lesja all have parts of their communes within the range. The goals of the 2006 plan include:

1. The muskox population shall be able to grow as naturally as possible within the defined management area. (Moskusstammen skal få utvikle seg mest mulig naturlig innenfor et definert kjerneområde.)
2. Muskoxen shall not establish themselves on a year-round basis outside of the defined management area. (Moskusen skal ikke etablere seg på helårsbasis utenfor det definerte kjerneområdet.)

In January 2013, this herd moved from the designed management area further west into the commune of Lesja. (It wasn’t the first time a herd had moved that far into Lesja: a news report from 1984 noted a herd had moved into Dalsiden, a long way from the current management area.) In the spring and early summer of 2013, this herd had come down into the valley to graze and then retreated into the mountains for the winter. Now the herd had been spotted again coming down the mountains, so all the animals were killed. SNO does not consider driving the animals on foot or drugging them and relocating them as effective alternatives.

One of a herd of three muskox put down in 2011 in Oppdal commune outside of the designated management area. Photo from

One of a herd of three muskox put down in 2011 in Oppdal commune outside of the designated management area. Photo from Miljødirectoratet

In the 1950s to 80s, the typical muskox ‘put down’ was a single individual who has strayed far away from the others. These were seen as troublemaking animals that might attack people or livestock. But since the development of the management plan, whole herds that have moved outside of the area have also been put down, such as a herd of 4 in Sunnsdal (2011) and a herd of 3 between Oppdal town center and Åmotsdalen (2011). In these cases, the animals had not caused any conflicts at the time in which they are killed. Rather, the killing is seen as a precautionary measure to avoid potential conflict with humans.

What’s interesting about this is how the precautionary management tone assumes that people and muskox really can’t live together–that conflict is inevitable. Perhaps the managers are right that people aren’t willing to live with muskox, just like they are unwilling to live with wolves and bears. Or perhaps people would be more patient and understanding if they knew what to expect from muskoxen. I don’t know.

The muskox appetizer served with dinner at Kongvolds fjeldstue, Norway

The muskox appetizer served with dinner that I ate in June 2013 at Kongvold fjeldstue, Norway.

The meat and skins will be sold with the proceeds supporting Norwegian wildlife management activities. The meat is served at Kongsvold fjeldstue in Drivdalen, where muskox is regularly on the menu, and will also be made into muskox sausage. I had a chance to eat some muskox at Kongvold fjeldstue last year and it was tasty, but I don’t think I’ll eat more now. Knowing that it might be made of this herd who crossed the lines would leave a bad taste in my mouth.

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