Through all this change, the Sami have carefully preserved the traditional knowledge which underpins their high capacity for adaptability and resilience. This knowledge includes a deep admiration for nature and a surprisingly laidback view on the whims of the natural world, considering reindeer are the basis of their livelihoods. The herders I’ve met are wholly accepting of the fact that at any given time, they don’t know the exact location of their animals. “After all, they’re wild creatures,” a seasoned herder told me, “they do as they wish.”
The Sami have also preserved a strong sense of community and responsibility towards fellow herders. Their perspective on the animals, whom they respect and recognize as having wills of their own, stands out as well. The herders have an astounding capacity for not only identifying individual animals — Henda Smuk can easily distinguish his reindeer from those of his father, uncles, and many cousins — but also understanding their tendencies and personalities.
Over the last half century, the Nordic countries in which the Sami live have begun to address past wrongs, enacting programs that support Sami culture and effecting laws to increase Sami legal rights. But in Norway, home to some 50,000 to 60,000 Sami, they still face threats to their herding grounds from other land uses such as logging, mining, and wind power development as well as limits on their herd sizes. They contend that the government should be doing more to help protect their reindeer from outside threats, including predators.
ON A SPRING MORNING, I rose ahead of the sun to head deep into the Raganhanjávri Valley with Smuk’s cousin, Mikkel Neshavn. As we made our way through the mountains, the white noise of the engine and seemingly inexhaustible tundra nearly lulled me to sleep on the back of the snowmobile. But then Neshavn picked up suspicious bird activity — a telltale circling that usually indicates the site where a reindeer has fallen prey to one of its many predators, which range from wolverine to lynx to golden eagles.
We plunged through deep snow up a precariously steep slope to the area in question and found the remains of a female reindeer well on its way to being picked clean. “This probably happened within the past two days,” Neshavn gathered. We heaved the carcass onto a sled, and hauled it down the mountain behind our snowmobile. Neshavn would later bring it in for inspection in town to determine the cause of death, but he suspected it might have been killed by a golden eagle.
Golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) — one of the swiftest birds of prey in Norway — have their own storied history. Armed with massive talons and a wingspan ranging from 5’11 to 7’8 feet, the eagles can reach speeds of 240 kilometers per hour when diving for prey. As an indicator species, golden eagles are considered “ecological barometers.” They are highly sensitive to environmental changes in the ecosystem and can sense chemical and pollutant levels, which means they can help scientists gauge the health of a habitat. In Norway, they are also a revered cultural icon and are vital to the wildlife tourism sector.
Unfortunately, these birds of prey have faced a wide range of threats over the years. Predator elimination campaigns to expand game species populations in the mid-nineteenth century resulted in the extensive hunting and poisoning of golden eagles, along with bears, wolves, lynx, and wolverines. Habitat-loss and human disturbance further contributed to population declines until the birds were finally protected by Norwegian law in 1968.
The Bern Convention, ratified by Norway in 1986, further bolstered the protection of endangered species and natural habitats, and in 2009 the country enacted the Nature Diversity Act to ensure “sustainable management” of apex predators, setting a conservation goal of 850 to 1,200 breeding golden eagle pairs. Since then, the raptors have made a strong recovery and are generally heralded as a conservation success story. It is difficult to evaluate the exact number of breeding pairs of golden eagles in Norway. Presently, their population in the country is believed to be relatively stable and at its natural capacity, with somewhere in the range of 652 to 1,139 breeding pairs.
As eagles have rebounded in Norway, conflicts with Sami herders, as well as sheep farmers, have increased. While golden eagles typically hunt smaller mammals — like hare, grouse, and ground squirrels — they also target large mammals such as sheep, saiga antelope, and reindeer.