Norway’s sheep farmers, fearing the loss of their traditional livelihoods to packs of wolves roaming the rugged outback, have embraced a controversial approach to preserving their rural professions: killing nearly two-thirds of the nation’s wolf population.
“Wolf attacks hit sheep herds hard and very extensively,” said Erica Fjærn, a spokesperson for the Norwegian Association of Sheep and Goat Farmers (NSG). “This has led to sheep farmers quitting.”
Currently, wolves are only supposed to live in designated “wolf zones” — areas along the craggy Norwegian-Swedish border established to nurture the country’s recovering wolf population. But according to Fjærn, there are too many wolves and they’re spreading across the country.
“We have to manage the [wolf] population,” she said. “They will repopulate very quickly if given the chance and then we’ll have a national problem. They’re not supposed to be in all of Norway.”
Fjærn said families that have allowed their sheep to roam freely for decades — if not centuries — have had to move to wolf-free areas, only to have the beasts follow them and continue killing. Others, she reiterates, have abandoned the time-honored occupation permanently.
To manage the population, the Norwegian government has authorized hunters to remove 47 of the nation’s 68 wolves. The hunt, which began this fall and will continue into 2017, is expected to help mitigate conflicts by reducing Norway’s growing wolf numbers to a government-approved population size.
In a nation often viewed as environmentally-friendly, the wolf cull reflects a deep-seated battle over the future of Norway’s conservation policy. The goal is to shrink an exploding wolf population in order to mitigate human-animal conflicts, but it raises a question: how wild are wilderness areas actually allowed to be?
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the battle was between humans and animals. Today, the fight is between people over wolves.
“It’s pure politics,” said John Linnell, a biologist with the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research (NINA). “In many ways [the wolf cull] represents a total moral failure on Norway’s part to make any significant contribution to wolf conservation.”
This debate isn’t limited to Norway; in the United States, the reintroduction of wolves to the Rocky Mountains has ignited similar passions, and conflicts, between livestock producers, conservationists, and the federal government. For conservationists, the booming wolf population in the U.S. is a cause for celebration; for livestock producers, a vicious example of government overreach.
In the 1970s, after being almost completely exterminated from all of Scandinavia, wolves gained legal protections in Norway. By the 1980s, a small group of wolves of Finnish/Russian origin had immigrated to the southern areas of Sweden and Norway, and by 1999, officials estimated that there were six wolf packs living in the two countries. Last year, that number had mushroomed to 49 packs, seven of which lived entirely in Norway, with another four traveling back and forth over the border.
To have a healthy number of wolves, grounded in science, Linnell says Norway's wolf zone should have as many as 30 packs.
“If Norway itself had an obligation to have its own, viable population you would certainly be dealing with many many times what we have now,” he said. “You’d be dealing with somewhere between five and 10 times the present goals.”
In order to manage the wolf population, the Norwegian government sets population goals: four to six breeding pairs of wolves. This year the goal was met, which means the population needs to be culled in order to fall in line with government targets.
“The interesting thing here is of all the conflicts that wolves cause, the conflict with sheep is the one conflict that actually can be mitigated,” said Linnell. “It is actually possible to change the way we farm sheep.”
That change, he said, would essentially mean putting sheep behind fences. It’s not a change that can be done overnight, he added, but the option has been on the table for a while.
“The sheep farming lobby has refused to make concessions for 30 years, and for 30 years it seems that they’ve won this by being stubborn,” added Linnell. “They seem to have actually managed to water down conservation goals and the country’s commitment to make adjustments.”
Last month, thousands of Norwegians hit the streets in protest of the wolf cull, petitions circulating online have garnered hundreds of thousands of signatures internationally, and green groups have filed appeals to stop the hunt. For the time being, the cull is still on and wolves outside the designated wolf zone can be hunted. Beginning in January, wolves inside the zone will be hunted too, much to the delight of hunters, the chagrin of conservationists, and the relief of Norway’s sheep farmers.
“We’re not killing off the last of the wolves in the world,” said Fjærn. “It’s wolf management.”
According to Norwegian statistics, between 2010 and 2015 livestock producers were compensated for over 12,000 sheep and lambs killed by wolves. And the NSG says, most of those kills occurred in, or near, the nation’s designated wolf zone. The mass killings have put the hurt on much of the livestock industry; According to NSG, between 1995 and 2014 the number of sheep farmers have declined by 35%. However, the number of sheep in Norway has remained relatively unchanged since the 1990s: NSG estimates that over two million sheep and lambs still roam the Norwegian countryside.
But of all the large predator species in Norway, wolves committed just over 7% of the total livestock crimes that occurred. From 2010 to 2015, wolverines wiped out over 51,000 sheep and lambs, while bears ate nearly 20,000, and lynxes drug off around 39,000. The only large predator that did less damage than wolves were golden eagles, which carried away just over 11,000 animals and most of them were lambs.
Espen Farstad of the Norwegian Association of Hunters and Anglers (NJFF) said wolves are also impacting the country's moose population, with packs of wolves killing an average between 100 and 144 moose each year. “But that’s not the main issue for the hunters in Norway,” said Farstad. “It’s actually the dogs.”
Because hunters often allow their dogs to run free when tracking moose, many end up on the wrong side of territorial wolf packs. According to NJFF, nearly 130 hunting dogs – Gordon Setters, Norwegian Greyhounds, Pointers, and other working dogs – have been killed in the line of duty by wolves since 1995.
“I think everyone who is out hunting for wolves can feel the pressure in the debate,” lamented Farstad. “We’ve got members that have been threatened with murder. There is also a lot of hate in the debate on both sides. We try to say that wolf hunting isn’t a question of if you are against wolves just as moose hunting is not a matter of if you are for or against moose. We are a management tool and we are doing this job for the government.”
Ketil Skogen, a sociologist with NINA, said that wolf conservation is also about cultural issues and that it has "become a strong symbol of something else."
“It has to do with a change in values for land management and resource use, tilting more towards restrictions on economic use of land and the conservation of problematic carnivores," he said
For many Norwegians, the outback can offer economic gain through constant harvesting. But for others, it represents a natural heritage in need of protection for future generations. Wolves only belong in one of these scenarios.
“Wolves are fine in Siberia and Alaska where they belong, in the wilderness,” said Skogen. “Most people who don’t want them here don’t hate the wolves; they hate the people who have brought them back.”
Tristan Ahtone is an award winning journalist and member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma. Born in Arizona and raised across the United States, he was educated at the Institute of American Indian Arts and the Columbia School of Journalism, and serves as Treasurer of the Native American Journalists Association.