The Return of Native Nordic Fauna

A research blog exploring animal reintroduction history by Dolly Jørgensen

Category: hunters

War on wildlife

When I was in London at the end of October, I saw a barrage of red poppies. They were everywhere — on signs and stores and lapels. As an American, I will admit being confused about what they were for when my daughter asked me, so we talked to a guy on the bus wearing one. I found out that they were for Remembrance Day or Armistice Day — November 11 — which marks the end of World War I and honors those who fell in the ‘war to end all wars’. The poppies will likely be a common sight over the next few years since 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the conflict.

Historians will also be doing work to re-examine WWI as well as other conflicts and their legacies in memory of the centennial. Part of the recent re-evaluation of war includes its environmental history, with recent scholarship such as Natural Enemy, Natural Ally (2004), War and Environment: Military Destruction in the Modern Age (2009), and Arming Mother Nature (2013). There has also been interest in recovering the stories of animals in war such as in the collection Animals and War (2012). There is even an Animals in War Memorial in London unveiled in 2004.

An article with picture about a muskox seen near a farm in Åmotsdal during the German occupation of Norway, published in Aftenposten, 12 September 1942.

An article with picture about a muskox seen near a farm in Åmotsdal during the German occupation of Norway, published in Aftenposten, 12 September 1942.

Like many other animals, the muskox in Norway is wrapped up in a wartime narrative. Norway was invaded by the Germans in 1940, who wanted both ice-free northern ports and the mineral wealth available in the country. During the German occupation, the muskox herd in the Dovre mountains disappeared. What happened to them?

The whole story is not entirely clear, but a particular shooting of a Dovre muskox by German soldiers on 22 September 1944 produced a Rashomon-like assemblage of stories about a muskox murder. From the viewpoints of informants I found documented in the Norwegian National Archive, here’s what happened:

Der Reichskommissar für die Besetzten Norwegischen Gebiete official report, dated 27 Sept 1944

Officer Haseman had seen a muskox mingling with a herd of grazing cattle. The soldiers were on patrol looking for escaped Russians [from the prisoner of war camps]. Finally the muskox saw them and ran toward lieutenant Hennig, which is why soldier Burchardt shot it. The lieutenant himself fired the second shot, then the game animal crashed into the ground. Burchardt fired the kill shot.

Skogdirektøren (Forest administration) report

After the muskox had been seen, two Germans with rifles went to hunt it. A man from the highway administration went after them, made contact with the hunters, and told them that the animals had complete protection and that killing was forbidden. In spite of this, the Germans continued the pursuit and shot it.

O. Olstead (the veterinarian in charge of muskox), likely based on account from John Angaard from Dombås, dated 9 Oct 1944

A muskox was seen near Hjerkinn station by several people. After a while, it headed out of the area. Later witnesses saw 2 women and 3 uniformed officers, two of which had rifles, headed toward Snøhetta. Because he was afraid that the hunters were intending to shoot the muskox, a man ran after them to tell them that the animals were protected. When he got to the area, the hunting party had split into 2 groups, but luckily he was able to tell both groups about the situation. After the messenger had gone a distance toward home, he nevertheless heard 1 or 2 shots in the direction of the muskox. He then saw the hunters with women gather together where the animal was felled.

Reidun Michelsen, 16 years old, eyewitness report taken 30 Jan 1945

On that day Reidun Grønbekk, three German soldiers (a lieutenant, a junior officer, and a regular soldier), and I went on a walking tour. When we came over a hill we met Titus Åboen who told us that there was a muskox in the area and he pointed in the direction to where it was. We crept over so that we were at a distance of 20-25 meters, and we laid there and watched for a while. We went back to the hill and sat down to eat when the ox came running toward so. When the ox was 15-20 meters away, the junior officer shot it in self defence.

Reidun Grønbekk,16 years old, eyewitness report taken 7 Feb 1945

At midday, we [Reidun and his friend Reidun Michelsen] saw a muskox walk by the Hjerkinn train station. We went over to see it closer. Three Germans–a lieutenant, a junior officer, and a regular soldier–came by on a motorcycle. My friend Reidun knew the junior officer. When we got 40-50 meters from the muskox I stopped because I was afraid to go closer. The others crept forward until they were 10-12 meters from it. The muskox eventually got mad and ran toward us. The junior officer shot at the muskox and it fell. It got right up again and the junior officer shot one or two times more sot that it was dead.


So there you have it. Many versions of the same event.

After this incident, there were investigations into the status of the Dovre muskox herd. The Riksjegermester (national hunting administrator) Solbraa asked for local reports about the numbers and whereabouts of the animals. The reply from the Opland wildlife and hunting coordinator indicated that 16 animals had been seen in spring 1944, and since 4-5 calves would be expected, there should be about 20 of them. This was the same message received from the coordinator in Dombås.

But the report from the Klæbu district hunting coordinator painted a more dire picture: no one he talked to had seen any muskox that year and on top of that a number of them had been illegally shot. According to him, only one animal had been seen in Opdal in 1942 and 43 and only three had been seen in Åmotsdal. He was unsure if the muskoxen had all died or simply relocated.

Adolf Hoel (the man who was head of the Polar Institute that had brought the muskox calves to Dovre) sent a letter on behalf of the nature protection association Lansforbundet for Naturfredning i Norge to Solbraa asking him about the status of the herd. Hoel had heard that the herd had been greatly reduced by illegal felling. Solbraa’s reply on 15 February 1945 was that the status was unknown, as apparently the muskoxen had split into small herds or lone individuals. He did, however, confirm that two muskoxen had been shot by Germans.

After the occupation was over, the Germans got the blame for the muskox’s disappearance. A headline in Aftenposten on 21 November 1945 claimed ‘Germans exterminated muskoxen’, although text of the article states: ‘in winter 1943-44 German and “Norwegian” hunters lived in two cabins in the district where the muskoxen stayed. The animals were tame and easy to shoot, and it is possible that it was that winter that the most animals were killed.’ (note that the report put the Norwegians in quote marks). Another article from 7 March 1946 likewise sported the headline ‘No muskoxen left in Norway. The Germans took them’. The evidence in support of the claim was two fold: (1) the 1944 shooting by ‘”Germanic’ hunting companions’ (again Germanic is in quote marks) and (2) a German officer in Trondheim had a mounted muskox head delivered to him, which although the officer claimed it was from Svalbard, must have been from Dovre.

The story was thus built up that the Germans shot and killed all the muskox of the Dovre mountains. Maybe they did. Maybe they didn’t. After all, there were terrible food shortages in Norway during the occupation, so one muskox would have fed many mouths. We may never know. Such is the cost of war.

The great Greenland hunt

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.

Reconstruction of a seal trappers hut on East Greenland in the Polar Museum, Tromsø, Norway. Photo by D Jørgensen.

Reconstruction of a seal trappers hut on East Greenland in the Polar Museum, Tromsø, Norway. Photo by D. Jørgensen.

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.

Photo showing muskox meat hung up to dry on East Greenland. Polar Museum, Tromsø, Norway. Photo by D. Jørgensen.

Photo showing muskox meat hung up to dry on East Greenland. Polar Museum, Tromsø, Norway. Photo by D. Jørgensen.

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?


Hunters as godfathers

I’ll be going to Stockholm in mid-February for a day-long seminar on “Wildlife and Wildlife Management History”. I signed up give a short oral presentation on the role of hunters and hunting associations in my beaver reintroduction story, so I’ve been spending time lately examining that aspect.

I decided to start with some web searches for what environmental historians have written about hunters and hunting associations. I thought I’d find plenty of material. On the contrary, I found a surprising dearth of scholarship. Not that there’s not lots of scholarship on hunting per se and on hunting history — but I wanted something specifically framed as environmental history. I found a couple of articles: Martin Knoll’s work on 18th century European elite hunting and Tom Dunlap’s Sport Hunting and Conservation, 1880-1920. And I read Tina Loo’s book States of Nature, which, while not just about hunters, includes them in the story and has a nice chapter on beaver conservation in Canada. So for those out there searching for a dissertation topic, the environmental history of hunting (and probably fishing for that matter) seems like a wide open field.

Dunlap argued that American hunting at about the same time as my Swedish case was neither about conservation (sustainable management of the populations) nor preservation (completely protecting the animals) but “rather a way to recapture the past and its virtues” (57). Hunting was a ritual activity that demonstrated mastery of nature and manliness. Dunlap admitted that hunters and hunting groups were effective at restricting hunting seasons and techniques in the US during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but “the desire to hunt supported the impulse to save and to protect” (57). Certainly this was the motivation Loo identifies for the beaver conservation projects in Canada by the Hudson Bay Company, which wanted to increase future prey numbers and thus future profits.

So my question was: Do we see the same thing in Sweden?

The second beaver reintroduction project was taken on by the Västerbottens läns jaktvårdsförening (county wildlife management association; I’ll call them VLJ for short). VLJ was founded in 1919 . The first VLJ director wrote an introductory essay in the group’s first yearbook defining ‘jaktvård.’ He considered it something akin to household management that required care and limits—hunting laws were necessary to protect animals from widespread “jaktlust”. Some people either did not respect the hunting laws or tried to kill as many animals as possible once the hunting season started. The VLJ’s task was thus to arouse interest in hunting “based on love for the animal world and nature”; a love which leads a hunter to “rejoice” when he sees “his wildlife thrive and multiply.” I don’t think this was the same kind of sportsman’s code that came into circulation in North America, which stressed the hunting as a sport and diversion for modern men. In the VLJ texts there does not appear to have been the same distinction between sport and subsistence, nor was there an emphasis on hunting as a modernizing project – a way of getting back to nature – because they didn’t think man had ever left.

It was in the spirit of Swedish ‘jaktvård’ that the association became involved in beaver reintroduction, releasing 7 Norwegian beavers in 1924 in Tärnaån in northern Sweden. Rather than touting human mastery over nature, VLJ advocated stewardship of beavers.


Photo from a article in the VLJ 1925 Årsbok with the caption: “Baptismal officiant on 28 August. One year old beaver released”

A long article by Lennart Wahlberg about the reintroduction begins by listing the “baptism officiant” (dopförrättaren) and “godparents” (faddrar) for each set of beavers. Wahlberg might have been invoking a double meaning since the beavers were also taking their first dip (dopp) in the new waters. The use of these titles signals that the people present at the reintroduction were more than observers—they became the people responsible for the beaver’s future success. Just as a baptismal sponsor agrees to raise a child to know God and the church, these individuals were agreeing to ensure the beavers’ integration into the landscape. Sponsors are not in a position of domination, but rather facilitation and guidance. When Lennart Wahlberg took a trip in 1930 to check up on the beaver colony, an article written by another member of the group referred to the beavers as the “wards” of Wahlberg, who was listed as the “dopförrättaren” in the release of four beavers on 20 July 1924.

The VLJ was serious about keeping up their sponsorship. The association maintained a “Beaver fund” on their account books to pay for “beaver watch” of the Tärnaån beavers, and a “Beaver report” was included in every yearbook through 1935. The reports noted where beaver tracks had been spotted, trees downed, lodges constructed, and young observed. The reports noted great anxiety when the beavers could not be located or appeared to have abandoned a given area, and great relief when they were seen again.

Interestingly, the possibility of hunting beavers in Sweden post-reintroduction is never mentioned in VLJ articles. Articles often talk about older beaver hunting techniques and beaver products (meat, skins, and medicine), but authors never propose to reinstitute these. If the idea crossed their minds that beaver hunting could in the future be reinstated in Sweden, it was never said aloud.

What was said was that the hunters associations had a duty to right the wrongs of the past. They did not have in mind “preservation” where nature was left to its own or “conservation” with the idea to shoot later beaver progeny. But neither was their motivation the “desire to hunt” as identified by Dunlap. Instead, these hunters felt they had to nurture nature as a godfather, to watch over the beavers and help them succeed in their new homes because previous hunters had failed to take care of them.

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