The government of a developing nation sanctions hunting a critically endangered species and everybody loses their mind. The same thing happens in one of the world’s richest countries and no one bats an eye.
Predators may soon be a thing of the past in the Norwegian wilderness. Norwegian livestock industry is economically strong compared to farmers in countries such as Romania who has a population of predators roughly 30 times the size of Norway’s. In that way the human predator conflict (HPC) in Norway is not in ANY way analogous to the HPC in less developed countries such as large parts of Africa and Asia. Norway has not had an incident in which humans have been killed or severely harmed by predators in more than a century. Still, Norway’s population of predators are threatened by fearmongering, ignorance and greed.
In the eighteen-hundreds the predators of Norway were faced with extinction. The fear of having the large predators kill livestock – or even humans – was genuine, even if the danger was less real. The fear resulted in a mass culling of Norway’s four large predators. The brown bear (Ursus arctos), the lynx (Lynx lynx), the grey wolf (Canis lupus) and the wolverine (Gulo gulo) – all had to go. In 1845 the Norwegian government passed a law called “Lov om Udryddelse af Rovdyr og om Fredning af andet Vildt”, “the law of extermination of predators and the conservation of other game.” By the start of the twentieth century both bears and wolves had been eradicated while the lynx and wolverine barely survived by keeping well away from humans. Then, in the mid nineteen-hundreds both the wolf and the bear reappeared in our forests and measures were put in place to save the immigrating populations. The predators all became protected species. Today we have the bragging rights to about 300 lynx and wolverines, around 150 (if we are generous) bears, and about 70 wolves in the entire 385,178 km² Kingdom of Norway (Predator data). This means that the four large predators of Norway are still regarded as endangered, except for the gray wolf which is still regarded as critically endangered in Norway.
“At least all of the large predators of Norway are protected now”, you may think. And they sort of are. Unless they give birth to more than thirteen litters of cubs nationally, if we are talking about bears. And unless they wander outside the designated protected predator area, if you are talking about wolves. Then the governing agencies may open for licensed hunting of endangered species, and even critically endangered species, to keep the numbers down. In 2015 the lynx did not manage to breed as many litters as conservationists hoped and they ended up below the national population goal. STILL, the government opened for licensed hunting of the lynx, an endangered species IN DECLINE.
The politics surrounding predators in Norway is controversial at best. The overall goal is to balance the conflict between predators and their protectors, and the industries that rely on the forest for a living. The goal of the laws regulating the hunt of predators in Norway are supposed to keep a healthy genetic population of all wild animals, as well as dampen the conflict with those who want to cleanse the Norwegian wild of any potential danger. Not an easy task. The pro-carnivore side argue that the four large predators are a part of a healthy ecosystem, while the NO-side argue that the predators we have now are not “Norwegian” but that they have immigrated from Finland and Russia. I don’t know if any wild animals know how to interpret maps and borders, so my guess is that the immigrating predators might just be following their instincts and moving in to available territories regardless of human created borders.
The conflict is not entirely black and white. It is much more complicated. It is coloured by a huge system of governmental agencies, a myriad of laws, law enforcement, conservation groups, and poachers. Trying to stitch together a plan that fits all sides of the conflict seems to be impossible and at the moment our predators are losing the battle.
Tightly monitored, weakly controlled
The Norwegian predator population is tightly monitored by the governments nature surveillance agency and predator data. Their numbers show that even though the animals are closely monitored, and the measures put in place should provide a healthy population, the number of bears in Norway have declined by almost 15% since 2009 (Predator data). Poaching of predators is a huge problem when the populations already are miniscule. By taking out individuals from a population you are effectively creating an anthropogenic bottleneck effect, and adding to the already ongoing inbreeding which must be present in such a small population. Another problem with poaching – especially with bears – is that it is the females who set up territories, hence they are easier to find and kill. Taking out females from the population only contributes to the collapse of an already small genepool.
Catching poachers is extremely challenging. They often know the area where they hunt very well, they seldom shy away from trapping and poison baiting to rid themselves of what they regard as vermin. Recently a group of hunters who were found guilty organizing wolf poaching got the first sentence of any significance in Norway. They were all tried under the so called “Mafia article” under Norwegian law for organized crime against nature, and they received sentences between six and twenty months in prison for their contributions to the hunt. This may not seem very strict, but seen with Norwegian eyes it is a harsh sentence.
The real problem
Even though poachers are often seen as the big bad wolf – pun intended – the problem also lies elsewhere. The Norwegian people often only know the predators through fairytales and stories as grandma-eating evil beasts. Few have any knowledge of the true behavior and ecological role of carnivores in nature, and even fewer have had the privilege to see the predators take off in a wild escape when chancing upon humans. The most extreme voices are the loudest – both the conservationists and the ones opting for culling – while the scientific community seldom rise up. In the events where scientists enter the debate they most often represent an objective voice who try to enlighten both sides. Few biologists and ecologists in Norway rise up to give their study subject a voice. I don’t know why, but it might have something to do with the Norwegian “folk spirit” not to get involved in a battle that is not yours. But it might also have something to do with politics. Universities are supposed to be a place of freedom of speech and the spread of knowledge, but politics and pride often interfere with science when it’s time to hand out research grants. Better to have friends in the right places.
The problem – in my humble opinion – is roughly two parted. Knowledge and power. The people with knowledge lack power, and the people with power often lack knowledge. The people with knowledge seldom get involved, while the people with power listen to the voices they hear, which most often are the more extreme sides of the debate. Farming and living off nature has been a way of life in Norway for hundreds of years, while the conservationists have been seen as “crazy tree huggers”. So who are the legislators going to listen to? The conservationists who have a reputation as crazy actionists, or the farmers which cling to Norway’s national heritage.
It is time for the people with knowledge to also get some power, or the people with power to get some actual knowledge. If we don’t promptly change the way we manage predators in Norway, we are going to lose them forever sooner than we think. And with them also the last piece of stability in our wilderness’ ecosystem.