The Return of Native Nordic Fauna

A research blog exploring animal reintroduction history by Dolly Jørgensen

Category: muskox Page 1 of 6

Wild tourism meets local civilisation

The contemporary ‘rewilding’ movement as manifested in organisations like Rewilding Europe promotes wildlife tourism as an economic benefit for local communities. The newest Rewilding Europe target area, Rewilding Lapland, has also adopted this emphasis on wildlife watching as an alternative to other disruptive uses of the land such as intensive forestry, mining, and green energy developments which are competing economic interests in the area.

The event at Dalarna University was organised by Albina Pashkevich (middle). Håkan Lindström of Rewilding Lapland also talked at the event.

The event at Dalarna University was organised by Albina Pashkevich (middle). Both I (left) and Håkan Landström (right) of Rewilding Lapland talked at the event.

As a historian, I look for historical parallels or (although I know many historians shutter at the idea) historical lessons that might shed light on potential hidden problems with contemporary developments. So when I was asked to participate in a seminar about rewilding and tourism at Dalarna University’s Tourism Studies group last week, I decided to offer up a historical case of when ‘rewilding’ tourism (even if it wasn’t called rewilding back then) conflicted with local inhabitants. Håkan Landström of Rewilding Lapland was there to talk about his plans to get the rewilding activities up and running.

I talked about the Norwegian muskox herd that has become a tourist icon in the Dovre mountains and Dovre National Park with signs and toys and muskox safaris. On the surface, everything would seem great with these reintroduced animals that have built up a whole tourist industry around themselves.

But below the surface I’ve found a history of local inhabitants who did not want muskox there. They were scared to go hiking, had to run up trees to avoid charging animals, and one local man was killed. Numerous newspaper articles over the years reveal that muskoxen ended up going into towns and either had to be shooed away or shot. The upshot of all that is that a multi-community muskox management plan had to be created in order to make sure that these wild animals stay inside the lines of the allowable area (or are killed).

So while rewilding proponents keep talking about how we need to ‘give nature some more space’ (Landström of Rewilding Lapland said this in his talk) or E. O. Wilson lauches his idea to ‘devote half the surface of the Earth to nature’, they often overlook that people actually inhabit and/or use those spaces. People who live and work in rural areas generally don’t want predators or large dangerous animals in places where they might come in contact with them. Sure, a tourist will think it’s great to go on a wildlife safari in the north to see muskox or bear or lynx, but they don’t have to live there all the time. Not everybody wants to work in tourism–some people honestly want to be farmers. And that doesn’t mean that they are not ‘civilised’. Rewilders need to take seriously local residents’ concerns or they risk creating colonial hierarchies in which the rural/local/peripheral are ‘sacrificed’ on behalf of the urban/distant/center.

This doesn’t mean that rewilding initatives are impossible. But they better start listening to more voices if we are going to get this party started.

A muskox from Dave Eggers, It is Right to Draw Their Fur (buy the book here:

An awesome muskox drawn by Dave Eggers. Buy his It is Right to Draw Their Fur here:



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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A Sami view of muskox

Last week I had the pleasure to participate in The Future of Wild Europe early career researcher conference held in Leeds, England. I gave a keynote address “Conflict in a wilder world: Of muskoxen and men in Scandinavia” on the second day of the event (you can watch my talk here in its entirety).

If you’ve kept up with my work on this project, talking about the muskoxen which were reintroduced to the Scandinavian peninsula is nothing new for me. I looked at the muskox relocation from the muskox’s point of view in a 2014 talk I gave at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment & Society (which you can watch online) and the subsequent paper I published with the material (read it in The Historical Animal). Exploring how the story would be told if muskoxen were treated as human migrants, I discussed their forced relocation, unwanted immigrant status, and eventual cultural assimilation.

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Animals and authority in the Arctic

I have a new article out co-authored with Peder Roberts (KTH Royal Institute of Technology) on the many attempts and plans by Norwegians to move animals to and from the Arctic during the Interwar period. We teamed up together on this because while I had looked into the muskoxen relocated from East Greenland to Svalbard and the plans to introduce lemmings and rabbits as fox food on Svalbard, Peder had done work on penguin, seal, and reindeer relocations involving the Antarctic. The sheer number of these attempts was mind boggling.

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Explorers and muskoxen

I visited the American Museum of Natural History in New York yesterday. They have an excellent series of dioramas in the Hall of North American Mammals, which were originally opened in 1943 and elegantly restored in 2011-12.

The muskox exhibit at American Museum of Natural History. Photo by D Jørgensen, Nov 2015.

The muskoxen on display at American Museum of Natural History. Photo by D Jørgensen, Nov 2015.

One of the dioramas features muskoxen from Ellesmere Island, the third largest island in Canada. The pair were killed by Robert Peary’s Arctic expedition in 1898. This was the first of Robert Perry’s series of expeditions attempting to reach the North Pole (1898-1902, 1905-6, 1908-9) — he claimed to have finally gotten there on the last of those expeditions.

The diorama is framed in terms of Arctic exploration. The sign places the scene at ‘The Bellows’, a Canadian high Arctic valley on Ellesmere Island named by a British expedition team in 1875. The name was chosen because of the valley’s ‘unrelenting winds’. Within this context of exploration, the muskox is claimed to have been critical to the survival of early Arctic explorers like Peary:

Although sometimes musky in taste, musk-ox meat was vital to the survival of many Arctic explorers. Fresh meat supplies some vitamin C, necessary to ward off scurvy. During the British Arctic Expedition of 1875, fresh game was often scarce–and so scurvy debilitated half the crew.

This is true enough, but what the sign doesn’t tell you is that muskoxen like these were much more important as food for dogs than people.

'Royal banquet of my dogs'. Robert Peary, Northward over the 'Great Ice', vol. 1 (1898), p341

‘Royal banquet of my dogs’. Robert Peary, Northward over the ‘Great Ice’, vol. 1 (1898), p341

Peary was one of the great dog sledders. His book Northward over the ‘Great Ice’ about his earlier expeditions in Greenland, 1886 and 1891-96, contains detailed descriptions of muskoxen hunts. Although the men consumed some of the muskox meat, it was primarily for the dogs, which he called his “faithful shadows”. Peter Lent (Muskoxen and their Hunters) estimated that Peary’s 1898-1900 expedition on Ellesmere took at least 180 muskoxen. Considering that a dog sled team needs something around 9-10kg of meat a day, most of the muskox meat was consumed by the dogs. Hunts for muskoxen were thus as motivated by the needs of the dogs as they were the needs of the humans:

With the utmost eagerness we scanned every new prospect for the coveted animals; for we knew that musk-oxen meant fresh meat for ourselves, and an abundant supply of food for our dogs. (332-33)

While hunting animals in order to provide human food might be more palatable than realising that hundreds of muskoxen became dog food, the sign at AMNH misses an important aspect of the story: the muskoxen of Ellesmere, Arctic explorers like Peary, and the sled dogs which powered the exploration were tied up into one history. The multispecies entanglements of the Arctic explorations should not be forgotten.

Stamp of approval?

Muskoxen have been roaming the Swedish mountains only since 1971 (at least this time around – they were present also several thousand years ago). That small group of animals had migrated by themselves over the Norwegian-Swedish border, so it was not a given how people would respond to these ‘new’ animals. For the most part, muskox quickly became understood as a central element in the mountains of Härjedalen, probably because of its novelty and distinctive appearance.

When a Swedish national postage stamp series titled “Fjällvärld” (“Mountain World”) was issued in March 1984, the images chosen were a general mountainscape, the angelica flowering plant (also known as wild celery), the lemming, and the muskox. This human inclusion of muskox in the Swedish fauna came only 13 years after the herd had immigrated over the border.

Fjällvärld series, issued by Swedish Post, 27 March 1984. Personal collection of D. Jørgensen.

Fjällvärld series, issued by Swedish Post, 27 March 1984. Personal collection of D. Jørgensen.

Myskoxe, Fjällvärld series, issued by Swedish Post, 27 March 1984. Personal collection of D. Jørgensen.

Myskoxe, Fjällvärld series, issued by Swedish Post, 27 March 1984. Personal collection of D. Jørgensen.

The muskox stamp’s image was designed by the artist Ingalill Axelsson and engraved by Majvor Franzén. Axelsson, born in 1933, is a major Swedish stamp artist (she has 119 stamps in the Swedish Postmuseum database) and in 1993 won the prestigious Asiago International Award in Philatelic Art. Much of her stamp work features nature images and portraits. Franzén was Sweden’s first woman engraver. She worked for the Post in the 1960s, 70s and 80s; 105 stamps are attributed to her hand in the database. Axelsson and Franzén produced both the lemming and muskox images for the Fjällvärld series.

The text printed (in both Swedish and English) with the first day issue card for the stamp series is telling of 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.” In this text, the muskoxen coming to Sweden was “return to the fold”, or a return home. The idea was that muskoxen were native Nordic animals that had at last come back to Sweden. 

Had muskoxen won a stamp approval in this stamp issue? Certainly some people thought they belonged in the Swedish mountains, but that was not a universal feeling. To this day muskoxen are considered non-native species in official Swedish policy. Their future in the Mountain World of Sweden is uncertain. Like I discussed with a postage mark of a muskox used in Svalbard, iconic status doesn’t guarantee a continued life.


I recently published the larger story of muskoxen as migrants in Sweden and Norway in the article “Migrant Muskoxen and the Naturalization of National Identity in Scandanavia” in The Historical Animal (Syracuse University Press, 2015) edited by Susan Nance. The collection is an impressive exploration of animal history and I’d highly recommend getting a copy.

Animals in agricultural history

I’m off to Lexington, Kentucky, tomorrow for the Agricultural History Society meeting. This conference has adopted an ‘Animals in Agriculture’ theme and I am very excited to hear about the research being done in this area. I’ll be part of the opening plenary panel ‘Animals and Agricultural History’ on Thursday morning speaking about animal agency, animals as technologies, and how including animals in our histories opens up new lines of inquiry.

My own personal paper contribution will be ‘The Quest for Qiviut’, which examines the attempts to domesticate muskoxen as wool producers. Although the ‘Return of Native Nordic Fauna’ project is focused on animal reintroduction, moving animals around take place with multiple motivations, some of which we might think of as contradictory. The relocation of muskoxen from Greenland in the 20th century encompassed both agriculture/domestication and reintroduction/wild desires. So it’s important for me to look at the domestication story as part of the reintroduction story. Instead of writing about my talk (you can read what I’ve written before about muskox domestication on this blog here, here, and here), I’ll share a visual representation of the talk with you.



The Fruitful Arctic

The Path of Supremacy from Vilhjamur Stefansson, The Northward Course of Empire (1922)

The Path of Supremacy from Vilhjamur Stefansson, The Northward Course of Empire (1922)

In 1922, the Arctic explorer and ethnographer Vilhjalmur Stefansson published his book The Northward Course of Empire in which he argued that the North had been greatly misunderstood and could become a seat of great civilisation. After all, he argued, civilization had been moving further and further north into the colder regions over human history.

The North, rather than being a barren wasteland devoid of vegetation, was a green space. The trick, Stefansson argued, was to turn the vegetation to productive use:

The realization kept gradually growing on me that one of the chief problems of the world, and particularly one of the chief problems of Canada and Siberia, is to begin to make use of all the vast quantities of grass that go to waste in the North every year. The obvious thing is to find some domestic animal that will eat the grass. Then when the animal is big and fat it should be butchered and shipped where the food is needed. (48)

Stefansson believed cattle and sheep were not the answer to this problem because of the problem of feeding and sheltering them during the winter. Traditional crop plants could also not withstand the frosts. Instead he decided that the solution to this waste was the widespread domestication of reindeer and muskox in the North.

Stefansson began actively promoting the animals after World War I. With his encouragement, the Canadian Department of the Interior set up a royal commission in 1919 to study the possibilities and they issued their final report in 1922. The report comes out more in favour of reindeer than muskox because of prior work domesticating reindeer, but it also encouraged further investigation of industrial possibilities for muskox domestication.

Hand-colored lantern slide. Stefansson Mss. 226, Dartmouth College.

Hand-colored lantern slide showing a muskox herd in Canada. Stefansson Mss. 226, Dartmouth College.

Stefansson may have first become acquainted with muskoxen (which he called ovibos based on the Latin name because he disliked the ‘musk’ and ‘ox’ connotations of the regular name) during his time in the Mackenzie Delta of Canada in 1906-1907. The presence of a hand-colored lantern slide of a muskox herd dated 1906 in his collection at Dartmouth College makes this likely. Stefansson had eaten plenty of muskox on his various Arctic expeditions and offered the opinion that “not one person in ten could even when on his guard tell an ovibos steak from a beefsteak” (The Friendly Arctic, 585). He also noted that muskox wool (qiviut) was high quality, although it was difficult to collect and spin because it was mixed with longer hairs. In his descriptions of muskox in The Freindly Arctic (1921) and The Northward Course of Empire (1922), he claimed that the animals do not roam in search of pasture, seldom attack, and seldom flee. All in all, the muskox was the perfect animal to make the North productive:

When we sum up the qualities of ovibos, we see that here is an animal unbelievably suited to the requirements of domestication–unbelievably because we are so habituated to thinking of cow and the sheep as the ideal domestic animals that the possibility of a better one strikes us as an absurdity. We have milk richer than that of cows and similar in flavor, and more abundant than that of certain milk animas that are now used, such as sheep and reindeer; wool probably equal in quality and perhaps greater in quantity than that of domestic sheep; two or three times as much meat to the animal as with sheep, and the flavor and other qualities those of beef. When you add to this that the animal does not roam in search of pasture, that the bulls are less dangerous than the bulls of domestic cattle because they are not inclined to charge, and that they defend themselves so successfully again packs of wolves that the wolves understand the situation and do not even try to attack, it appears that they combine practically every virtue of the cow and the sheep and excel them at several points. (The Friendly Arctic, 587)

With a pitch like that, it’s a wonder everyone didn’t run out and buy a muskox! Although Stefansson may sound like he is overselling his product, others would adopt very similar language in touting the muskox as Svalbard’s future meat supply in the late 1920 and the next knitting industry of northern Norway in the 1960s. Even in 1946, Stefansson was still promoting muskox as a domestic animal, this time saying that it was “the most promising animal for New England” in an article in Harper’s Magazine. Stefansson’s vision was directly transmitted to John Teal Jr., who started an experimental farm in Vermont in 1954 to raise muskoxen and later moved his operation to Alaska.

The vision of turning the ‘unused’ land of the North into a fruitful Arctic was powerful. It encouraged both domestication and reintroduction projects of muskoxen in Norway, Alaska, and Canada over the course of the 20th century. The land of snow and ice would be a land of meat and wool.

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.

In search for the Golden Fleece

I ran across a lovely poem by the modernist poet Marianne Moore (1887-1972) this week titled “The Arctic Ox (or Goat)”, published originally in her collection O to be a Dragon (1959). Here is an excerpt:

To wear the arctic fox
you have to kill it. Wear
qiviut–the underwool of the arctic ox–
pulled off it like a sweater;
your coat is warm; your conscience, better.

I would like a suit of
qiviut, so light I did not
know I had it on; and in the
course of time, another
since I had not had to murder

the “goat” that grew the fleece
that made the first. The musk ox
has no musk and it is not an ox–
illiterate epithet.
Bury your nose in one when wet.

Lying in an exposed spot,
basking in the blizzard,
these ponderosos could dominate
the rare-hairs market in Kashan and yet
you could not have a choicer pet.

They join you as you work;
love jumping in and out of holes,
play in water with the children,
learn fast, know their names,
will open gates and invent games.

If you fear that you are
reading an advertisement,
you are. If we can’t be cordial
to these creatures’ fleece,
I think that we deserve to freeze.

She wrote “The Arctic Ox (or Goat)” based on an article written by John J. Teal, Jr. titled “Golden Fleece of the Arctic” published in the March 1958 issue of Atlantic Monthly. Teal was the major proponent of muskox domestication in the US from the 1950s to 1980s. He had an interesting longstanding relationship with the muskoxen in Norway.

In the early 1950s, he looked to Adolf Hoel’s work importing muskoxen to the Norwegian Dovre Mountains as an example to follow in muskox domestication. He wrote an article “The Norwegian Musk-Ox Experiment” published in The American-Scandinavian Review in spring 1954 extolling the “important information … regarding their feeding habits, sicknesses, and peculiarities” coming from John Angård who took care of the calves destined for release. Teal was encouraged by “the Norwegian experiment” and was eager to use it as the basis for his new muskox domestication project. Although the Norwegians never framed the Dovre releases as ‘domestication’, the knowledge they produced was repurposed by Teal.

Corralled muskox on the Alaska farm, late 1960s. University of Alaska Fairbanks collection, UAF-1983-209-54

Corralled muskox on the Alaska farm, late 1960s. University of Alaska Fairbanks collection, UAF-1983-209-54

In 1954, Teal captured some muskox calves in the Thelon Refuge of Canada and relocated them to a farm in Vermont working as the Institute of Northern Agricultural Research. His vision was that the animal would be “useful not only for Arctic husbandry but also for the many sub-marginal farming areas in our northern states” (quote from “The Norwegian Musk-Ox Experiment”). In 1964, Teal decided to move his project to Alaska and founded a farm at the University of Alaska Fairbanks using animals captured on Nunivak Island (I discussed these animals previously here). He set up the Oomingmak Musk Ox Producer’s Cooperative to knit the wool in 1969.

Because of his extensive experience working with muskoxen in domestic settings, when Norwegians began floating the idea of setting up a muskox farm in northern Norway, they called on Teal’s expertise. In 1966, he visited Tromsø and the little town of Bardu to discuss the idea of importing some of his animals to northern Norway.

(An aside about how global this all is: The calves caught in East Greenland had been shipped to Norway in 1929 then sold to the US in 1930 and shipped via boat then train to Fairbanks. In 1936, the animals were relocated to Nunivak Island.  In 1964, calves caught on Nunivak were taken to Teal’s farm. Now, the idea was to take calves from Teal’s farm back to Tromsø, Norway. My head is spinning…)

Anyway, the import from Alaska ended up not being practical, so the Norwegians went to East Greenland (the source population) instead. Teal continued to play a critical part in the plans for domesticating muskox in Norway. The veterinarian who prepared an official report for the Norwegian Parliament about the suitability of muskox as domestic animals visited Teal’s Alaska operation in 1968. In 1969, Teal once again visited Tromsø as an expert consultant and he became the official advisor to the farm set up by Norsk Moskus A/S. One newspaper account even called Teal “the father of the idea [of muskox domestication] here in Norway.” (Aftenposten, 28 Nov 1970). I would agree that he was a booster and expert, but father of the idea is stretching a bit. Instead, what we see is a circular, self-reinforcing relationship: Teal looks to Hoel and the Norwegian import as example, Teal sets up farm in Vermont then Alaska, then Norwegian interests in northern Norway look to Teal as example.

Items for sale at the Myskoxcentrum in Tännäs in June 2013

Items for sale at the Myskoxcentrum in Tännäs in June 2013

When Marianne Moore wrote her poem, she bought into Teal’s boosterism. Muskox wool (qiviut) was the miracle fibre that would dominate the winter fabric market. Muskoxen were tame, easily playing side by side with children. These characteristic ended up being proven untrue. Teal’s farm was indeed successful–on a small artisanal scale–and it remains so to this day, selling products through the cooperative. But qiviut never became a household item. The northern Norwegian domestication attempt folded in the 1980s. While you can buy qiviut mittens at the muskox breeding center in Tännäs, Sweden, this is not its main business. Being cordial toward muskox fleece, as Moore implied, turns out to not be enough.

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