The Return of Native Nordic Fauna

A research blog exploring animal reintroduction history by Dolly Jørgensen

Category: muskox Page 2 of 6

Muskoxen making a mark

Example of the Longyearbyen post office cancellation mark featuring a Svalbard reindeer.

Example of the Longyearbyen postmark featuring a Svalbard reindeer.

If you ask people to name iconic polar animals, a few would probably appear on the list with the polar bear most assuredly on top. In 1967, the Norwegian Post Office issued official postmark for three Svalbard locations, Longyearbyen, Ny Ålesund, and Isfjord radio, which each featured an animal from Svalbard: reindeer, seal, and polar bear, respectively. These were obvious choices.

In 1973, the Post Office decided to add to the original set with special postmark for Bjørnøya and Sveagruva. Bjørnøya featured a thick-billed murre (a bird in the auk family called polarlomvi in Norwegian), the first bird in the series. Sveagruva got a muskox!

I discovered this as I spent most of the day reading newspaper articles from the 1950s through 1990s from Svalbardposten, the local newspaper of the Svalbard archipelago, and a few other northern Norwegian newspapers that have been digitized and made available by the Norwegian National Library. An article from Nordlands Avis on July 10th, 1973, caught my eye with its illustration of the new postmarks which were coming out August 1st.

New cancellation stamps issued in 1973 for Svalbard's Bjørnøya and Sveagruva.

New postmarks issued in 1973 for Svalbard’s Bjørnøya and Sveagruva. Printed in Nordlands Avis, 10 July 1973.


The choice of the muskox as the image for Sveagruva shows how familiar the muskox had become to the people of Svalbard. Muskoxen had been on Svalbard since 1929 when 17 calves were released. The population had ups and downs, but never grew very large. In 1973 a few months after the postmark was issued, a new census of the Svalbard muskox showed that there were probably about 40 animals alive. Stories about animals roaming into towns or someone nearly running into a mad bull in the countryside made appearances in Svalbardposten every few years.

When the choice about the postmark’s image was being made, something else, perhaps an arctic fox which was the prized object of fur hunters, could have been chosen to represent Sveagruva. But it wasn’t. The muskox turned out to be iconic, as it would later in the Dovre mountain area. It had a uniqueness and appeal as a symbol of the Polar North was matched only by the iconic nature of the polar bear, reindeer and seal.

Sveagruva postmark dated 30 October 2012 on a collector's website (

Sveagruva postmark dated 30 October 2012 on a collector’s website

Yet an iconic status doesn’t guarantee a long life. The muskoxen would be extinct on Svalbard only 12 years later–the last muskox sighting was in 1985.

In spite of the animals being gone, the muskox postmark for Sveagruva is still in use. It serves as a haunting reminder of the shaggy icons which roamed Svalbard for 66 years.

Short-term thinking

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


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

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

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

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

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

Muskox reintroduction and Cold War politics

Rare animals, especially ones deemed worthy of environmental conservation, can take on political significance. I’ve previously discussed the complicated politics of claims on East Greenland and its intersection with muskox reintroduction in Norway in the 1920s and 30s. I’ve also written about the US-China exchange of muskoxen for pandas in the 1970s. It turns out that muskox reintroduction also factored into US-Russian politics in the 1970s.

Norway was not the only place interested in reintroducing muskox. Muskoxen had been extinct in the western half of Canada and in Alaska since sometime in the 1800s (ethnographic evidence from the early 20th century indicated familiarity with muskoxen among Inuit peoples but only among the very old). In 1930 at the request of the Alaskan Territorial Legislature (Alaska did not become a US State until 1959), the US Congress appropriated $40,000 to reintroduce muskoxen to Alaska. The animals were caught in East Greenland, shipped to Norway, then taken to New York. While that seems like a crazy cross-Atlantic journey, the animals were not actually bought by the US until the Norwegian hunters and brought them from East Greenland to Norway. Thirty-six muskoxen were shipped by train from New York to Alaska, where they were put out on University of Alaska property in 1930.

Muskoxen in the biological survey pasture at the University of Alaska Agricultural Experiment Station. Photo in University of Alaska Fairbanks collection,

Muskoxen in the biological survey pasture at the University of Alaska Agricultural Experiment Station in 1934. Photo in University of Alaska Fairbanks collection,

The animals stayed there until 1936 when 18 males and 13 females were relocated to Nunivak Island, which had been designated as a wildlife refuge. The idea was that the animals on the island would serve as the source population for reintroduction efforts throughout Alaska. Indeed, the numbers took off in the 1950s so that by 1965 there were 500 animals on the island. With a booming population, the US Fish and Wildlife Service transplanted 137 animals onto the Alaskan mainland in 1969-1970. (These details are found in A Fish and Wildlife Resource Inventory of Western and Arctic Alaska prepared by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in 1977).

There were still plenty of muskoxen on Nunivak waiting to be relocated–so in come the Russians. The US had signed an environmental cooperation treaty with the USSR in 1972, in spite of (or perhaps because of) the Cold War. Arctic and subarctic systems were specifically called out as an area of cooperation, and the “joint development and implication of programs and projects in the field of basic and applied sciences” were included as possible actions. Under the treaty, a group of Soviet scientists who had been able to acquire 10 muskox calves from Canada in 1974 asked for a larger transfer of 20 from the Nunivak herd. The Soviets wanted to reintroduce muskoxen to Siberia, specifically the Taimyr Peninsula.

Not everyone was pleased with the suggestion of sending muskoxen to the Russians. It appears from newspaper accounts that the Interior Department had made the agreement sometime before March 1975, but was reluctant to announce it publicly in Alaska for fear of increasing anti-Soviet sentiment in Alaska. An editorial piece in the 2 April issue of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner criticised the plan, saying “If the state is going to release any surplus of musk-oxen to other parties, Alaskans and other Americans should have preference over foreign nations.” Regardless of the objections, the muskoxen were released to the Soviet scientists. The issue did have a positive effect for the local community, however, because the lack of a functioning management plan and local involvement in muskox hunting was brought to the fore as an issue. The first sanctioned muskox hunt on the island (hunting licences for the taking of bulls were sold by lottery) took place in fall 1975 to reduce the island’s population.

Those muskoxen sent to Russia–which if you remember were descended from animals born in East Greenland then taken via Norway to Alaska then transplanted to Nunivak Island where they had lived since 1936–have multiplied in the years since 1975. The Taimyr Peninsula, which had last seen muskox 2000 to 4000 years ago, had become home to an estimated 6500 animals in 2008. A documentary film The Return of the Musk Ox (2008) by the Ukrainian director Sarana Vasili gives some glimpses into this new (or actually very old) muskox habitat in chilly Siberia repopulated during the Cold War.

This week in muskox

On twitter Jon Mooallem (check out his book Wild Ones) announced that he has discontinued his This Week in Wild Animals column. This prompted my husband to suggest I could do a “this week in beavers” or “this week in muskox”, but he added that he was sure I wouldn’t have enough material for such a thing. “Ha! You haven’t seen how many newspaper articles I have on my computer,” was my retort.

Although I will not be doing a regular thing of it, I decided to look through my historical articles for what indeed had happened in the first week of January in the many years covered by my muskox files. To my delight, I found a wonderful article for a “This week in muskox” post in honor of the weird and wacky world of human-animal interaction.While I’ve previously discussed conflict between settlers and Svalbard’s muskoxen, I didn’t mention this story. Yet, it is a perfect example of post-reintroduction conflict when animals exercise their agency and don’t pay attention to human boundaries. It also shows how people often act irrationally in response to those kind of threats. It is one of those stories that falls in the you-just-can’t-make-that-up category. So here it is in its entirety, from Norway’s Aftenposten newspaper, in the Friday, 4 January 1963 edition, page 12 (translated by me):

Pastor’s wife lets loose on two muskoxen with a broomstick

From Aftenposten’s correspondent, Svolvær, 3 January

An ice layer covers the ground on Svalbard and is making grazing difficult for both reindeer and muskox, reports Lofotposten‘s correspondent in Longyearbyen. The bad grazing has among other things caused two muskoxen to move into Longyearbyen, and there has been no luck trying to drive them away.

The animals first showed up on Saturday, and a bulldozer was required to drive them back out to the tundra again. Sunday morning the animals were back in the area of the foreman’s garden and they attacked the dog of pastor Olav Tysnes. The pastor’s wide grabbed a broomstick to drive the animals away, and they disappeared behind the foreman’s garden, where the two oxen had a fight.

Even yesterday evening the animals sauntered around the town houses in Longyearbyen, and parents are afraid to let their children go out on account of the mean muskoxen.

Happy New Year and be glad you don’t have to chase muskoxen out of your yard with a broomstick this week in 2015.

2014 in review

My previous post marked the 150th post of this blog and the year is coming to a close, so I thought it would be a great time to review what I wrote about in 2014. Although this blog is based on my research about beaver and muskox reintroduction in Norway and Sweden, I range far and wide in applying my research insights.

Ongoing news about the beavers in the British Isles was worth comment several times, including coverage of the beavers discovered in Devon and their potential cull because of fears of disease. For some, the beavers are a lost species who is wanted back in Britain. For others, including the media, it’s been unclear whether the beaver has native or non-native status, but that hasn’t stopped proposals for more beaver reintroductions like in Wales. As noted in an exhibit in the Grant Museum, the question still remains whether or not money would be better spent on conserving animals already present in Britain rather than bringing in extinct ones.

Of course, I didn’t restrict my discussions to British beavers. My travels during the year brought me in contact with the histories of beavers in other places, including LatviaBerlin, and my nearby zoo in Lycksele. I also commented on the Canadian beavers which had been brought to Finland. And I can’t forget to mention the flying beavers reintroduced via parachute in the US.

My favourite beaver post of the year had to be about eating beaver for Lent. It’s a great example of how medieval history and modern history can intersect. Of course, being trained first in history as a medievalist, I like to bring older history into the blog, which I did with posts on otters appearing on Olaus Magnus’s 16th century map of the North and the animals in the early medieval Life of St. Cuthbert.

My most read post on this blog is about beavers too, but it’s actually from 2013. “On the time I drank castoreum” ended up being linked to by an NPR article in March 2014 on castoreum flavouring and the result was a huge spike in readership. That post has nearly 1200 views! I had a follow-up this year on castoreum as a driver for beaver hunting rather than just fur, but it’s popularity is nothing like the drinking post.

Muskox, the other main subject of this blog, has to be the worst named animal on the planet since it is neither an ox nor produces musk. Its name is certainly not the only thing contentious about it. It can be an inconvenient animal, especially when it crosses lines over national boundaries (like a herd did in the 1970s) or into urban areas, resulting in sanctioned culls. Financial compensation is often required when muskoxen have caused damage within ‘allowed’ areas. Reintroduction efforts are anything but cheap – in the case of the muskoxen, there was significant fundraising (the beaver reintroduction had required fundraising too).

The original motivations to bring the muskoxen to Norway and Svalbard were complicated and political, although practical considerations like its potential use as a meat source as an acclimatised animal were also fundamental. Patriotism and nationalism are key elements in reintroduction because there is often a sense that the animal should belong within a particular nationstate where it is currently absent. There remains the question, though, as to whether previously extinct animals will be counted as ‘citizens’, which often depends in turn on how lines in time are drawn by scientists. An animal’s history and the way in which that animal is remembered in the communal memory can also affect its acceptance–this applies even to introduced species that can become so accepted that they are state symbols. All of these cultural issues factor into how ‘attractive’ a reintroduction is, even if people think they are being ‘scientific’ about their decisions.

One of the most interesting muskox stories this year was the pair of muskoxen traded to China in exchange for a pair of pandas in 1972. Milton and Milton did not fare well in the Chinese zoo and soon died. It was a sad story, although it didn’t get as much attention as the death of Marius the giraffe in the Copenhagen zoo in February. That was likewise dwarfed by the media coverage of the 100th anniversary death of Martha, the last passenger pigeon, who was put on display at the Smithsonian. Of course, it’s not easy to know you’ve seen the last of a species, just as it is difficult to trace the beginning of an idea.

I included a fair share of other species on this blog in 2014 too, including the cultural history of vultures and cod, a suggestion to reintroduce wild reindeer as fodder for wolves, the relationship between American bison and Native American, and the amazing success of axolotls in captivity in spite of their near-extinction in the wild. Insects even made an appearance in posts about beaver beetle specimens and their missing data and parasite co-reintroduction. I was also interviewed for a feature article on responses to raccoon dogs entering Sweden that appeared in the magazine Filter in June.

I had noticed raccoon dogs in an exhibit case of ‘new species in Sweden’ at the Swedish Natural History Museum (Naturhistoriska Riksmuseum), which I think has missed out on telling possible species histories.The Natural History Museum in Brussels, however, was very good about giving animals personality and a voice, and the Field Museum in Chicago included some compelling animal histories. I always keep an eye out for reintroduced animals in exhibits, like the beavers at Oulu University’s exhibit on Finnish animals and in Lund University’s post-glacial fauna of Sweden exhibit. A visit to a parish school museum in Estonia even prompted me to write about beavers on school posters. A northern bald ibis, which is being reintroduced as a migratory bird between Germany and Italy, is being exhibited as part of the Welcome to the Anthropocene exhibit at the Deutches Museum in Munich.

The Welcome to the Anthropocene exhibit highlighted for me the problem of attempts to de-humanise thoroughly human landscapes, especially when humans are treated as ‘unnatural’ in restoration and rewilding discourse. A similar thing happens with deextinction talk that seems to overlook the social and cultural barriers to actually reintroducing previously long-dead species. We have the power to envision wilder worlds, but only if we make humans visible in environmental issues as integrated parts of the Earth.

Over the course of 59 blog posts, that’s what I was thinking through in 2014. None were final thoughts–they are always works in progress. By writing them here I get to work thorough my ideas while sharing them out loud, if you will. I hope it has been as interesting to read (I had over 10,000 page views this year) as it has been to write. I’m looking forward to continuing my journey in 2015 as I explore what reintroduction has meant in the past and what it could mean in the future.

Review of this blog in 2014

Visual insights into this blog in 2014


As we enter the Christmas gift-giving season, we are becoming bombarded with requests for money. Advertisements soliciting donations to a plethora of charities from WWF to the Children’s Cancer Fund fill the newspaper pages and the mailboxes.

Trying to raise funds for a worthwhile cause is, of course, nothing new. I mentioned before the fundraising undertaken for the Swedish beaver reintroduction projects, which was mainly based on individual private donations, often of very small amounts. Looking through documents about the muskox transfer to Svalbard, I discovered that another strategy was taken by Adolf Hoel and Norges Svalbard- og ishavsundersøkelser (later renamed the Norwegian Polar Institute) to raise funds for their muskox project: corporate solicitation.

The commemorative bust of Adolf Hoel at the Polar Museum in Tromsø sits appropriately alongside a stuffed muskox calf and mounted adult muskox head. Photo by D Jørgensen.

The commemorative bust of Adolf Hoel at the Polar Museum in Tromsø sits appropriately alongside a stuffed muskox calf and mounted adult muskox head. Photo by D Jørgensen, 2013.

When Adolf Hoel decided to import muskoxen to Svalbard, he had to act fast to buy some animals which were already in the country (taken by commercial hunters) before they were sold elsewhere. So he spent money that the Institute really didn’t have on hand. Afterward he needed to fill the economic gap.

He got a 5.000 kr commitment from the Norwegian government for the project, but since the total bill would run to 15.900, he needed to do some more fundraising. He wrote a series of letters in 1929 to some big corporate players in Norway , including Bergenske Dampslibsselskab (Bergen), Nordenfjelske Dampskibsselskab (Trondheim), and Freia Chokolade Fabrik. In these letters, Hoel tried to be saavy and appeal to the particular corporate interests. The letters to the shipping companies highlighted the potential economic value of muskoxen for both meat and wool as raw materials as well as tourism and the support for the project by Fridtjof Nansen and Otto Sverdrup (Hoel is doing some name dropping here). The letter to the chocolate factory stressed the suitability of muskoxen on Svalbard and the nature conservation value of the project, and included five photographs of muskoxen on East Greenland. Both shipping companies replied that they could not support the project financially and Freia replied that their funds for humanitarian causes had already been spent for 1929 thus they could not send anything in support of the project.

Hoel had better luck asking for donations from the hunting and fishing associations, which tended to be heavily involved in wildlife conservation in the interwar period. These included Norsk Jeger- og Fisker-forening (100 kr), Vest-Finmark Jeger- og Fisker-forening (25 kr), Trondhjems Jeger- og Fisker-forening (50 kr), and Østerdalens Jagt og Fiskeriforening (25 kr).  It appears that a fund drive among the Norsk Jeger- og Fisker-forening membership produced another 650 kr. But although there were many supporters, this added up to only 850 kr.

Hoel resorted to some individual solicitation. He asked the Crown Prince, who decided to fund the project with 100 kr, on the condition that the size of the gift remain anonymous. He also got an anonymous donation for 3000 kr, as well as personal donations from a Consul General and a dentist totalling 300 kr.

All in all, Hoel did a decent job but came up over 5.000 kr short on his fundraising attempts. When he summarized the situation in February 1930, he noted

I have strained myself to the utmost to get the most possible, but it has been extremely difficult, and the difficulty has been not least that the money was already paid before the collection began.

Obviously the muskoxen had already been released on Svalbard, so the Institute ended up stuck with the bill. I’m not how they covered it but they must have had a hit to the general operating budget. As it seems is still the case, there are more good ideas floating around than people who want to financially support them.

So this Christmas try to remember the muskoxen and beavers and all the other critters out there that need your donations to make conservation projects a reality.

Special thanks to Peder Roberts for scanning these documents for me in the Norwegian State Archives in Tromsø. 

The Meat Question

Today I’m giving a talk in the Anthropology series at University of Aberdeen. The project ArcticDomus hosted at the department was interested in my research on muskoxen because of their own explorations of domestication within human and animal relations in the north.

The first part of my talk focuses on the earliest movement of muskoxen to Norway. The first place that muskoxen were let loose was on Svalbard in 1929. This was no random choice. Svalbard, half way between continental Norway and the North Pole, had been an early modern whaling station, but activity really picked up at the beginning of the 20th century when industrial coal mining started. Longyearbyen on the island of Spitsbergen was established in 1906 as a coal company town and became the major settlement of Svalbard. Because of its remote northerly location, there was a constant concern about supplies for the population.

Globally, the early 20th century had been a time of increasing anxiety about meat. In the US, the meat crisis even led to serious consideration of a plan hatched in 1910 to import hippos to Louisiana — read Jon Mooallem’s fascinating book American Hippopotamus for the whole story. The European-based empires had great expanded their dependence on meat imported from colonies and other friendly nations. During the trade disruptions during World War I, meat shortages had been challenging.

Norwegian hunters on East Greenland had long used muskox meat to feed themselves and their dogs during their hunting excursions. When Adolf Hoel, founder of the Norges Svalbard- og Ishavsundersøkelser which became the Norwegian Polar Institute, proposed to bring muskox to Svalbard, he did so for multiple reasons, one of which was meat. He wrote in his article ‘Overføring av moskusokser til Svalbard’:

There is naturally also great importance that such a large meat-producing animal like muskox is found on Svalbard, where it often happens that people are in need and don’t have enough food.

In 1929, 26 muskoxen (mostly calves and young animals) were relocated from eastern Greenland to Svalbard. While eating muskox was the eventual goal, killing the muskoxen introduced in 1929 was strictly prohibited. A sign was set up in the mining company’s shop in Longyearbyen stating: “Muskoxen are protected.” Although six muskoxen were shot in the winter of 1942/3 as food for the military garrison on Svalbard, the muskox remained a protected animal, illegal to hunt. The dream of muskox meat on Svalbard never became reality.

Although polar bear visits to the town were not uncommon, muskoxen visits evoked fear and concern. In winter 1972, an old muskox had decided to take up residence near the town’s kindergarten. 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. Finally, two industrial trucks owned by the local coal company were used to scare the animal back to the pasture area 3 kilometers from town. Not only did the muskoxen fail to provide the security of a new meat supply, but even offered physical insecurity.

The muskox named 'Atle' was given sanctuary in teh town of Longyearbyen during the harsh winter of 1977. Aftenposten, 10 March 1977.

The muskox nicknamed ‘Atle’ was given sanctuary in teh town of Longyearbyen during the harsh winter of 1977. Aftenposten, 10 March 1977.

By the mid-1960s, there were probably about 50 muskoxen on the island of Spitsbergen, but in the late 1970s, alarming reports of declining muskox numbers started coming in. In 1977, only 15 animals were reported still alive, one of which was ‘Atle’ who sought shelter in the town of Longyearbean. The winter had alternated between mild periods and hard freezes, forming ice layers over the ground, which made it difficult for the muskoxen to find food. In 1979, only one lone cow was spotted in the normal muskox feeding grounds near Longyearbyen. Sometime in the early 1980s, this lone individual died and the muskox was gone from Svalbard.

The dream had been that East Greenland muskox hunting for meat would be reproduced on Svalbard simply by importing the animals. The reality was that the herd never grew large enough to support hunting for meat, and on top of that, the animals simply turned into a nuisance for the inhabitants of Longyearbyen. The meat question would not be solved by the muskox.

A political object

Last week Tina Adcock, environmental historian at Simon Fraser University (Canada), had a series of tweets about muskoxen she was discovering in some Canadian documents:

Tweet series on muskox


This, of course, got me thinking about why muskoxen garnered political attention in Scandinavia in the early 20th century.

One of the reasons Adolf Hoel gave for bringing muskox to Norway was to smooth over political troubles with Denmark. Norway and Denmark were arguing about control of Greenland. In 1814, the Treaty of Kiel required Denmark to cede Norway to Sweden, but Denmark retained all other territories including Greenland. When Norway became an independent nation in 1905 (free from Swedish rule), Norwegian officials started discussing whether or not Greenland should be part of Norway. When Denmark claimed sole sovereignty over all of Greenland and its waters in 1921, Norway objected. Norway believed they had a claim to resources in East Greenland where Norwegian seal hunters had been operating since the 19th century.

On East Greenland, Norwegians hunters often killed muskoxen for food and gave it to their sled dogs. In addition, there had been a high demand for muskox calves to send to zoos around the world — and catching calves meant killing the adults. The muskox population showed signs of decline. In December 1926, Landsforeningen for Naturfredning i Norge (Association for Nature Protection in Norway) wrote an open letter to the Norwegian Foreign Affairs Department criticising these practices. They pointed to Canada’s recent establishment of large arctic reservations in which it was forbidden to kill muskox. The group recommended that a clause be added to the pending agreement between Denmark and Norway on Greenland specifically about preserving rare or useful species. Then in 1929, the report of the 18th Scandinavian Naturalist Congress, which was held in Copenhagen, declared that:

Now the time has come, which we fear, that muskoxen will be extinct in East Greenland north of Scoresby Sound, and consequently the governments of Denmark and Norway should immediately take measures to protect the muskox. And why should Denmark and Norway not be in agreement about this issue and follow the stellar example which is set by Canada, where the muskox’s existence was also threatened, since both its area of distribution and number of individuals was greatly reduced? Already for several years muskoxen have been strictly protected in Canada, and only in great emergency are the native population (Indians and Eskimos) and scientific expeditions allowed to hunt the animals.

The nod to Canadian protection of muskox refers to the ban on muskox hunting, which according to the secondary sources I’ve read came into force in 1910, and the establishment of a wildlife sanctuary at Thelon to protect muskox in 1927.

This is the political context within which Adolf Hoel, founder of the Norwegian Polar Institute, brought muskoxen to Svalbard for release into the wild in 1929. The political implications were clearly on his mind. In the article ‘Ovreføring av moskusokser til Svalbard’ from 1930, Hoel wrote that the muskox translocation

has national meaning for us. We Norwegians are a hunting people, more than anyone else on the whole Earth. We often hear critique that we exterminate the ocean’s mammal, whale and seal, and fur-bearing animals like arctic fox and polar bear. This critique hurts us in many ways. This attempt with transplantation of muskoxen can partially answer this critique; we will show with it that we don’t only slaughter, but that we too support cross-border idealistic cultural work.

The muskox then was more than just a source meat or wool. It was part of a political struggle over natural resources in Greenland. The struggle would only get more intense.

In 1930, the Norwegian and Danish authorities were negotiating about muskox protection measures in East Greenland (this is documented in a series of “verbal notes” between foreign affairs departments in the National Archives). Denmark proposed a complete ban on shipping muskox, which would in practice mean no trade in meat, furs or calves. The Norwegian counterproposal allowed taking of calves with permission, killing of adults for food for overwintering hunting expeditions but not to feed sled dogs (except entrails), and import of meat to Norway would be forbidden. The Danish government rejected this proposal saying it wouldn’t solve the problem.

In 1931, a group of Norwegian hunters ‘occupied’ land in East Greenland where they had traditionally hunted, claiming it for Norway. The Norwegian navy were ordered by Defence Minister Quisling to support the action. The two nations were close to war. Norway and Denmark agreed to let the international court in the Haag decide on the claim. In 1933, the court ruled that Denmark was the holder of Greenland according to the Treaty of Kiel from 1814. Norway agreed to honour the decision.

Even after the decision, Danes and Norwegians (who were allowed to continue to have hunting operations on Greenland) continued to spar about muskox protection. A newspaper editorial by Professor Jon Skeie titled ‘Danish agitation against Norwegian hunters’ in June 1933 fought against the ongoing Danish portrayal of Norwegians as killers of muskox. It was the Danish, he argued, who hadn’t agreed to the Norwegian proposal in 1930, which would have been effective. And it was the Danes who continued to eat muskox meat during expeditions. The Danish State Inspector for East Greenland Ejnar Mikkelsen held a lecture in March 1935 criticising the failure to protect muskox in East Greenland. Adolf Hoel took issue with Mikkelsen’s lack of numbers to show whether it was really Norwegian hunters who were the problem or Danish ones too: ‘The Danish are as good, or as bad, as the Norweigans when it comes to shooting muskox.’ Hoel was personally offended by Mikkelsen’s critique of the importation of  17 muskox calves to Svalbard in 1929. Hoel answered that preserving muskox was part of his motivation for the action, so it should be praised. In the end of his 5 page letter to the Norwegian government with his thoughts about Mikkelsen’s talk, Hoel reaffirmed that Norway should be committed to preserving muskoxen, but a total protection in the area proposed by Mikkelsen was unacceptable because ‘the most important Norwegian hunting area would be directly harmed’. This was a tricky game of politics.

Tit for tat. Norwegian article pointing out that the Danish proposal to protect East Greenland fauna was already being done by Norwegians. Aftenposten, 30 August 1938.

Tit for tat. Norwegian article pointing out that the latest Danish proposal to protect East Greenland fauna was already pretty much being done by Norwegians. Aftenposten, 30 August 1938.

No easy solution was at hand. It took until 1949 before the Danish government established comprehensive regulations for hunting and trapping in East Greenland. The rules gave the Norwegian government the right to transfer a total of 20 calves to Norway from 1949 to 1954 with a ceiling of 60 adult animals shot in the process. The Polar Institute used this quota for calves released in the Dovre mountains and Bardu. After that point, calves were no longer caught in Greenland for Norway. The herds had to survive without further additions from Greenland.

Politics. Politics looms large in nature conservation. Administrations in Denmark and Norway were indeed ‘absolutely obsessed with muskoxen’ as Tina noted. As Norway and Denmark fought about hunting practices and land claims, muskoxen became a political object enrolled in a larger political struggle.

Disloyal muskoxen

In August 1948, 10 yearling muskoxen were taken to Bardufoss in Northern Norway for release into the wild. Two of them apparently died shortly after arrival, but the others made themselves at home in the area around Bardufoss. The Norwegian Polar Institute (Norsk Polarinstitutt) had been convinced to release the calves there by Colonel Ole Reistad, who had led the Bardufoss Air Station forces against the Germans when they invaded in 1940 and became the commander of the Air Station after the war. Reistad died at the end of 1949 and as of July 1950, NP had heard nothing about the calves whereabouts since his death. The NP director A. Orvin wrote a letter to the new commander at Bardufoss airport Lieutenant Colonel John Tvedte asking if there was any news about the animals. Tvedte sent up a special recon flight and reported that two animals were seen in the mountains southwest of Bardufoss. In December 1951, farmer Alf Sundheim reported to the local paper Lofotposten that he had seen all the calves were alive. Correspondence between Sundheim and Orvin confirmed that he had seen seven of the animals, but instead of grouping together in a large flock, they were in small bands of 2 to 3 animals.

Animals, of course, move around. This is particularly true of herds looking for better grazing. I’ve mapped the places in the correspondence with the Polar Institute to get a visual of that movement.

In January 1953, the Norwegian Polar Institute received word that a group of muskoxen had been spotted in Sweden around Kiruna. John Giæver of the NP asked the Bardufoss Air Station commander to let him know if they happened to catch sight of the animals. There were conflicting reports about how many animals were there–maybe three, maybe just one. The Air Force hadn’t seen them at that time, but the commander noted that there had been little snow before Christmas and all of the mires and streams were frozen, so it was certainly possible that the animals moved over the border.

Giæver’s characterisation of the crossing and the muskoxen who did it reveals how ‘belonging’ was attached to the animals. In Giæver’s words in a letter from 27 January 1953,

It is in principle totally natural that it had wandered over to the brother folk [of Sweden] – even if it must be condemned as disloyal.

Then when he got word that the herd had moved back to the Norwegian side in February 1953, he wrote, ‘It is really more loyal’ (Det var jo faktisk mer loyalt). By saying that the animal is loyal or disloyal to Norway through its movements, Giæver claimed the animal as belonging in the country, with a duty to the fatherland. There is a deep nationalism at play in reintroduction. When the head of Nanok, the Danish company with rights to capture muskox in East Greenland, replied to Giæver’s letter mentioning the disloyalty, he expressed sympathy for Giæver’s position but also understood the muskox:

Although I will give you the right to say that it’s damned unfair for the musk oxen to run over the border to the brother people, on the other hand, it isn’t unreasonable that the muskoxen are dissatisfied with the situation in old Norway, when you consider that they are condemned to live in seclusion.

Seeing it from the point of the animal, perhaps it was a justified desertion of the country. Giæver was probably not sympathetic. He classified the muskoxen crossing the border as ‘a sorry end to this experiment’.

The Swedes apparently did not agree. After the Swedish papers reported the sighting on January 26th, the Swedish government listed the animals as protected on the 31st. The Swedish Nature Protection Association wrote to NP director Orvin that

The muskoxen’s appearance in Lappland is very pleasing and [the Association] will do everything in its power to promote the Scandinavian muskox population’s growth.

The Association requested information about the Norwegian reintroduction efforts, particularly those in Bardufoss since ‘the “Swedish” animals must have come from there’. I noted that they used quote marks around Swedish (‘svenska’) to indicate an unsure assignment of new nationality. When Director Orvin replied to the Association, he noted that they needed to hope there were both cows and bulls in the herd that moved over so that they might have calves and set up a new viable herd.

It turns out that the muskoxen didn’t stay on the Swedish side of the border. By May 1953, they had crossed back. But having the muskoxen, for even such a short time, whet the appetite of Swedes for the animal. The senior editor of the newspaper Norrbottens-Kuriren in Luleå asked the Polar Institute if it would be possible to buy calves for release in northern Sweden. Others from Sweden also wrote in asking for calves. The Institute, however, declined all requests, saying that they were currently only permitted by the Danes to import two calves each year and these needed to be set out in Norway to increase the existing Dovre and Bardufoss herds. Director Orvin noted that the Bardufoss muskoxen might decide to cross the border again and maybe in the future the herd would grow enough to set up a subherd intentionally in northern Sweden. That never happened.

Photo of the muskox that was put down in Bekkebotn in 1957. From the Gamle Salangen website.

Photo of the muskox that was put down in Bekkebotn in 1957. From the historical photos collection on the Gamle Salangen website.

The small Bardufoss herd hung on for a while but died out by the late 1950s, so there was no expansion of the herd into Sweden. The last confirmed information I have about a Bardufoss muskox involves its death. According to a report from April 1958 filed with the Wildlife and Hunting Office, on 16 October 1957, the farmer Alfred Engmo in Bekkebotn (c.23 kilometers southwest of Bardufoss) found a muskox that had gotten itself wrapped in barbed wire. The game manager of the Salangen commune together with the sheriff decided to have the district veterinarian put the animal down. The meat was sold for 3.50 kr per kilo. I was lucky enough to find a photo of that very muskox tangled in the barbed wire on the Gamle Salangen website!

And thus ends the first foray of reintroduced wild muskoxen into northern Norway and Sweden. But it would not be the last migration. The muskoxen would again vote with their feet and take up residence on the Swedish side of the border–in 1971 it would be a group from the Dovre herd taking up residence in Härjedalen. But that is another story.

Locals in the landscape

Mirror Lake, Yosemite. Photo by Carleton Watkins, 1865. Library of Congress.

Mirror Lake, Yosemite. Photo by Carleton Watkins, 1865. Library of Congress.

This week, Eric Michael Johnson published a piece at Scientific American, ‘Fire Over Ahwahnee: John Muir and the Decline of Yosemite’, about the drive by conservationists to both extinguish fire and the indigenous peoples who lived in the areas which would become some of the most famous ‘natural’ wonders in the US. This is a sad tale that many people within the field of restoration ecology are only now coming to grips with–the very thing that was valued was not ‘wilderness’ but rather anthropogenic. This resonated with my recent thoughts about the tendency to de-humanise thoroughly human landscapes. But it also got me thinking about whose interests get to count in nature conservation.

When Adolf Hoel decided that muskoxen should be reintroduced into the Dovre area of Norway, no one consulted the local population. At the beginning, there were concerns about safety hiking in the mountains. In the wake of a muskox attack which left a 74-year-old local man dead in 1964, the local farming community was even more concerned about the safety of children walking to school and potential deadly encounters on their farms. When the farming community of Engen sent a telegram signed by 122 local residents to the Ministry of Agriculture demanding that the Ministry remove the muskoxen, they got only a lawyer-speak response about the legal protection afforded muskoxen. Their concerns were not addressed.

When a small muskox herd moved over the border from Norway to Sweden, many people were happy. The tourist industry was particularly excited to have a new draw to the area. But some people were unhappy. The Sami reindeer herders were particularly displeased. The muskoxen had moved in the same area where their reindeer fed and this meant human-muskox encounters, something they wanted to avoid. In a letter from 1978, the Tännäs Sameby representative asked the environmental agency to not allow the herd to grow bigger more than 20 muskoxen. The Sameby also wanted a ban of muskox monitoring activities from 20 April to 15 June during the reindeer calving period. Although the county administration agreed with the Sameby’s position and forwarded these recommendations to the environmental agency (Naturvårdsverket), the memorandum of 10 May 1979 which defines procedures for handling muskox in Sweden does not address any of those concerns. In fact, it doesn’t mention reindeer herding or the rights of the indigenous peoples in the area at all.

What these two incidents have in common is that the local voices didn’t count. Someone far away in the capital got to decide what the ‘right’ relationship between people and animals should be. This is precisely the same kind of interaction I saw in the dam removal controversies I researched–the local people are discounted from the conversation because they are considered ‘uneducated country folk’ rather than parties with valid interests. I think reintroduction projects often face the problem of privileging the ‘common good’ (i.e. the good as defined by policymakers and scientists far away from the site) over the ‘local good’ (i.e. the local inhabitants and their needs and wants).

The beaver reintroduction in Scotland is a perfect example of this. In the report summarising the public consultation, which is a required part of the reintroduction process if you are going to follow the international IUCN guidelines, the conclusion was reached that a majority of people want the reintroduction, therefore it should move forward. But if you read the details, you see that the majority of the people who lived in the immediate vicinity of the reintroduction site were against it. It all comes down to how you define ‘local’ residents and whose voices are heard. I’m not saying that the trial shouldn’t have gone forward, but I am saying that we need to think about whether ‘public consultation’ in nature conservation and reintroduction projects is real or just lip service. Are the surveys and information gathered just to support the previously-decided outcome? Or are the consultations really part of the decision-making process?

When John Muir looked at Yosemite, he saw a natural wonder. What he didn’t fully grasp is that the people living in that landscape mattered tremendously. Wouldn’t it be a shame if after 100 years we still continue to do the same?

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