An inconvenient animal

As I have worked through the historical material on animal reintroduction in Scandinavia and read countless reintroduction cases elsewhere, one thing strikes me as the truth about reintroduction: people are perfectly willing to live with animals as long as it doesn’t inconvenience people.

"Myskoxarna i Härjedalen" brochure, 1979.
“Myskoxarna i Härjedalen” brochure, 1979.

This really hit home as I looked through some archival material I gathered from the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency (Naturvårdsverket) archive last week. In autumn 1971, a small group of muskoxen had crossed the border from Norway to Sweden, but the animals don’t make an appearance in Naturvårdsverket’s documents until 1976 (at least that’s the earliest the helpful archivist Menada could find).

A letter from November 1976  was sent from Tännäs sameby to Naturvårdsverket. Tännäs is a small village in Härjedalen where the muskoxen had taken up residence. The “sameby” part of the name designates the village as a Sami, the indigenous group in Sweden, and gives the village special protection legally as a reindeer-herding community. The mayor of Tännäs sameby, Bengt Andersson, wrote the letter to complain that the county of Jämtland was not properly dealing with a complaint they had about muskoxen and asked that Naturvårdsverket, who claimed responsibility for the muskoxen, should respond. Attached to the letter was thorough documentation of the original complaint sent in August 1976.

The problem Andersson described came down to this: “the sameby’s grazing ground are suffering significant inconvenience and intrusion.” For one, tourists were coming into the area to try to see the muskoxen, causing the reindeer to be disturbed. On top of that, the police had used a helicopter in April 1976 in an attempt to drug a muskox that had been injured and the operation disturbed the annual reindeer collection, with the result that 2 extra weeks were required to herd up all the reindeer that had been scared away. The Sami people wanted some reimbursement for those expenses, which is perfectly understandable.

In September 1976, there was a “Muskox symposium” held in Funäsdalen which attracted 22 attendees, all official representatives of either local or national groups. At that event, Andersson also made his case against the muskox, but this time he spoke more about the affect on daily life:

The fact that muskox are impossible to move from places directly connected to cabins and reindeer pens, as well as other places for reindeer husbandry means that one has a significant additional workload. … The local people like Sami don’t know how to deal with muskoxen today. … It has happened that a Sami has come right into a flock of muskox grazing on both sides of a path.

Andersson added later in the meeting that he wanted a guarantee that no more muskoxen would come over the border. It was a matter of keeping the numbers down:

Reindeer herders accept muskoxen, but not in unlimited numbers. A few animals are totally acceptable.

As I read through Andersson’s comments and letters, he often uses the word “olägenhet” or inconvenience to describe the muskox situation. The word has a connotation in this context similar to “nuisance” in English law. In other words, it is something that bothers you enough to keep you from doing the things you think you should be able to do. And this is precisely what muskoxen in Tännäs were to the reindeer herders — inconvenient. In order to limit that inconvenience, they wanted to make sure no more would come into the area and they wanted financial compensation for their inconveniences.

I think this attitude is still the prevalent one when it comes to human-animal interactions, especially in cases where the animal has been reintroduced (whether intentionally or not). People say that animals are acceptable, but not in unlimited numbers. On top of that, people ask for financial compensation if a wild animal causes any kind of damage or interferes with human activities. We like nature, but not enough to accept inconvenience.

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