In the Arctic, a Conflict over Hoof and Claw

Norway’s recovered golden eagle populations are a joy for conservationists. But Sami herders say the raptor’s taste for reindeer threatens their way of life.

WE WERE SCOOTING ACROSS the frozen landscape at last. My Sami host brother, Henda Smuk, had graciously offered to take me up to the mountains as he checked on the reindeer herds, and for hours we had been hiding out in the family cabin waiting for a snowstorm to subside. In the cabin we fed the wood stove dry logs, made instant coffee, and watched the snow blow sideways.

It was early April on the Varanger Peninsula in northeastern Norway, but to my untrained eye the bleak landscape showed no signs of spring yet. The reindeer would be left to roam across these valleys and frozen lakes for at least a few more weeks before conditions became suitable for them to migrate to their coastal summer pastures to seek better forage.

When Smuk decided that the weather was stable enough for us to venture out, we bundled up in full gear — reindeer-fur boots, snow suits, gloves, goggles — and scrambled aboard his snowmobile. Not far from the cabin, he spotted a dark smudge in the snow and we drove toward it for a closer look. It was a reindeer calf, large for its 9 months. Smuk knelt down to examine the carcass. It had not yet frozen stiff. He said it probably died just that morning, likely from starvation. It was rare for a carcass to be untouched by scavengers — death usually attracts immediate attention out here in the barren tundra. We decided to leave it behind.

There was other work to attend to: We were there to look for signs of golden eagles, once-rare birds of prey that the Indigenous Sami say threaten their livelihoods as reindeer herders.

IN 2019, I SPENT March through May with the Smuks, a generational Sami reindeer herding family of six, to learn about reindeer migrations in northern Norway as part of my post-graduate fellowship researching the impact of climate change and technology on traditional reindeer herding. As I settled in with the Smuks’ pace of life, I soon became accustomed to the rhythm of bringing hay to the herds, fixing and selling snowmobiles, and enjoying visits with neighbors while waiting out the long Arctic winter.

In the Nordics, the relationship between reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) and the Indigenous Sami — whose territory once extended across parts of present-day Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia — stretches back thousands of years. Traditionally, the Sami were nomadic, following semi-domestic reindeer herds on their biannual migrations between inland winter pastures and coastal summer grazing grounds. With time, the Sami began to domesticate the reindeer, earmarking, herding, and even feeding them in recent years to accommodate for rises in market demands. Today, their reindeer still roam widely across the landscape.

In Norway, the Sami still face threats to their herding grounds from other land uses.

Like most Indigenous peoples, the Sami have suffered the impacts of colonization. Around the ninth century, the region’s now-dominant groups began migrating to the region some call Samiland, which lies largely within the Arctic Circle. By the seventeenth century, Nordic governments began forcefully assimilating the Sami and pushing them off their lands. Laws stripped the Sami of their usufruct rights, their freedom to graze reindeer in a nomadic fashion, and even the right to speak their own language.

Other changes have eased some of the challenges associated with the nomadic pastoralist lifestyle. The Sami have replaced their skis with snowmobiles and some use GPS trackers to keep tabs on their herds. Many Sami now enjoy a largely sedentary lifestyle in comfortable houses.

The Sami have been herding reindeer for many centuries, but some practices have changed over the years. Most herders have swapped their skis for snowmobiles, for example, and some now use GPS to keep tabs on their animals. Photo by Kang-Chun Cheng.

Though the exact number fluctuates from year to year, there are some 200,000 herded reindeer in Norway. Photo by Kang-Chun Cheng.

The Sami contend that the government should be doing more to help protect their reindeer from outside threats, including predators like golden eagles. Photo by Tom Koerner / USFWS.

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.

Reindeer believed to have been killed by golden eagles. Photo by Kang-Chun Cheng.

For reindeer, the raptors are a particular threat during calving season. Newborn calves on wobbly legs are low-hanging fruit. It is not uncommon for golden eagles to kill far more reindeer than they can consume in one sitting. Franken Smuk, Henda’s father, showed me Snapchat footage from the winter of 2018, in which eight or nine reindeer carcasses can be seen lying next to one another on the side of a trail, speculating that it was the work of eagles. In 2009, a BBC natural history film crew captured unprecedented footage in northern Finland of eagles swooping down to grab calves, digging into the victims’ withers with their sharp talons and piercing their lungs.

‘We are the ones who drive on our lands and see the eagles. But [the government] doesn’t believe us.’

A 2007 study on the diet of nesting golden eagles, which involved collecting prey remains at 37 nests in the former Norwegian county of Finnmark over a six-year period, added further evidence of eagle predation on reindeer. Reindeer remains were found in half the nests, and were estimated to contribute about 10 percent of the eagles’ diets.

Still, reliable estimates around predation numbers are hard to come by. Whatever the exact number, herders say the eagles are causing substantial economic loss and placing an undue burden on their traditional livelihood. They say it took the emergence of the BBC footage for researchers to concede that reindeer calves were indeed being killed by eagles.

Inger Anita Smuk, executive board chair of the Association of World Reindeer Herders and Henda Smuk’s mother, says that is a big part of the problem: “We are the ones who drive on our lands and see the eagles. But [the government] doesn’t believe us.”

THINGS SEEMED POISED TO change in 2016 when the Norwegian Parliament agreed to consider managing the golden eagle population. Upon reviewing evidence provided by Sami herders, the Parliament requested that the government allow trial eagle culls in northern Norway.

But the proposed culls never happened. BirdLife Norway is dedicated to preserving birds and their habitats and mounted a campaign against it, describing the idea as “unfounded in the scientific evidence.” A petition against the proposal received more than 20,000 signatures and garnered international attention, swaying decision-makers. To this day, there is a strict no-shoot law in place for eagles, carrying penalties of up to six months in jail and/or a $5,000 fine, though individual “problem” eagles can still be culled. (Culling requires evidence that a specific eagle is causing problems, and Neshavn says that he does not know anyone who has gone through official channels to obtain a permit.)

BirdLife Norway concedes that the birds pose a relatively minor threat to herds: Systematic carcass surveys since 1987 documenting 145,000 reindeer losses attributed 5.9 percent of deaths to golden eagles. As Kjetil Solbakken, the organization’s director, puts it, reindeer herding is a “nature-based livelihood.” As long as it remains as such, there must be a decent balance between grazing pastures, reindeer population, and other members of the Arctic ecosystem.

“When you visit a place such as Finnmark, you expect true wilderness, but the carnivores are not there,” says Solbakken of BirdLife Norway. Photo by Kang-Chun Cheng.

Conservationists concede that eagles pose a small threat to reindeers, but argue that the needs of herders must be balanced against those of native Arctic predators. Photo by Per Harald Olsen.

“It is simply not acceptable that Norwegian nature shall be deprived of its large natural predators just because sheep and semi-domesticated reindeer should be able to graze undisturbed,” he says. The fact that predators prey on reindeer is part of a larger self-regulating system as dictated by nature. BirdLife Norway notes that the number of herded reindeer has increased significantly since the 1970s. And though claims related to golden eagle predation have gone up in recent years, the golden eagle population has remained relatively stable over the same period. Golden eagles are also a territorial species, meaning they will kill each other when the population is saturated, thus preventing overpopulation. Even if these birds of prey were eradicated from Norway, the herders would still have other problems.

Solbakken hopes to see fundamental change in how conservation is approached in his country. “When you visit a place such as Finnmark, you expect true wilderness, but the carnivores are not there. Where are the wolves, the lynx, the wolverines? Look at the bigger picture — predators are not allowed to thrive in grazing lands. In a country such as Nepal or Malawi, this would be unthinkable.”

NORWAY IS FAR FROM the only country that has struggled to manage conflicts between wildlife and livestock. In the Western United States, it’s wolves versus cattle. In Kenya, lions predate on the Maasai herders’ goats, while wolves are known to kill sheep in Slovakia. All of these countries have tried to address the conflict in one way or the other, whether by killing predators, better-protecting livestock through non-lethal means, compensating farmers for losses, or a combination thereof.

When it comes to golden eagles, Norway has focused on compensation. The current compensation scheme requires herders to bring in carcasses to the police station for official examination. Should the official Nature Inspectorate determine that the reindeer was killed by an eagle or some other large predator, the herder is entitled to full compensation for the loss. The payout is determined based on an index-regulated price per kilogram of meat that has been sold for slaughter over the previous three years. In the Varanger district, the market value is roughly $137 USD for a calf. Should an adult female carcass pass the examination, the herder may receive compensation for both the meat value of the female and future calves, though the specifics vary from region to region.

‘It is simply not acceptable that Norwegian nature shall be deprived of its large natural predators.’

Of course, the system is not without challenges. For one, it is nearly impossible to determine which kind of bird of prey did the damage. Though sea eagles are also believed to attack reindeer at times, herders are compensated only for losses attributed to golden eagles. A lack of quantitative estimates of livestock losses from predation also fuels disagreement about the compensation system. The Smuks, for example, say they receive compensation for less than half of the carcasses they bring in. John Oskal, another herder — who considers the compensation scheme to be “a joke” — estimates he receives compensation for even less, somewhere between 20 and 30 percent of his losses. Oskal believes that the only thing that will help herders is getting the eagle population down: “Everything else doesn’t work.”

For its part, BirdLife Norway believes that herders are fairly compensated for their losses, noting that “with such a grazing regime some loss to natural predators must be accepted, as all other natural causes of loss of grazing animals are already accepted.”

The group has also pointed to schemes in neighboring Finland and Sweden as possible alternatives. There, compensation payments to herders are based on the number of golden eagles in a given district, rather than on the number of confirmed reindeer losses. In districts with higher eagle numbers, herders receive higher payments. As BirdLife notes in a 2014 report, this scheme makes “a large breeding population and low degree of predation beneficial, thereby encouraging preventive measures.”

Wildlife experts suggest non-lethal solutions to the conflict, including testing out breeds of dogs to live among the herds, maintaining 24-hour watches over livestock, and selective breeding of female reindeer that show a greater mothering instinct. Photo by Kang-Chun Cheng.

Nicholas Tyler, a professor of reindeer biology and Sami Studies at the University of Tromsø, believes that the most realistic solution for such classic predator-prey conservation conflicts is some sort of compromise, one that often leaves both parties equally dissatisfied. He suggests solutions based on non-lethal methods of reducing eagle-reindeer conflict, including: maintaining 24-hour watches over livestock to discourage predators through human presence; testing out breeds of dogs to live among the herds; and selectively breeding female reindeer that display a mothering ability and are more likely to protect their calves.

There are challenges with all of these strategies. Oskal, for example, has tried watching his herd round-the-clock. He and other herders now gather all of their reindeer — a number he was not willing to disclose — together in one large herd and drive them 24/7. While this provides a reliable defense against predators, it’s not easy. Herders must contend with roads, railways, and land-ownership issues when moving their herds. It’s also time-consuming and costly in terms of the fuel used for snowmobiles. And it can put more stress on both the animals and the land than reindeer in smaller, free-roaming groups. What’s more, as Tyler says, “If one herd was very well protected, the predators would presumably go and find a herd that was less well protected.”

Introducing special breeds of herding dogs, such as maremma of the Italian alps, could face resistance among the Sami. And while the selective breeding strategy may hold promise, evidence of its efficacy is anecdotal and related to sheep.

Another option would be to develop “carnivore management zones” for eagles, a management scheme that has been employed with predators like lynx and wolves in Norway. Under such a plan, reindeer would be prioritized in certain zones, and eagles in others. “Tough for the herders in the latter areas,” Tyler admits.

At present, there’s little common ground between the Sami and conservationists on how to address this highly politicized issue. The conflict continues to play out between the two groups, primarily through government lobbying. Inger Anita Smuk says attempts to contact conservation organizations directly have been too heated to yield any productive communications. “They are just too strong in their views and do not have experience working on the ground the way we do,” she says. For his part, Solbakken believes herders want to keep the level of conflict high so as to maintain visibility for this issue and spur legislative change.

EARLY IN MY STAY, Henda Smuk’s godfather had told me, “If you don’t speak Sami, how can you communicate with the reindeer?” Sure enough, the more Sami I learned, the more I was able to recreate the secret stories that animal tracks and smells hold.

On one of the first days I went up to the mountains I was with Frank Smuk, Henda Smuk’s father, delivering some hay to the reindeer. We were not far from the herd when we suddenly veered off course — he had spotted some birds circling, and wanted to see what was going on. We plunged through deep, virgin snow up and came upon a dead reindeer. “It was probably the work of an eagle,” he said.

The feathers scattered around the carcass made that easy to believe. We hauled the carcass onto the attached sled for later inspection. Of course, even with all the clues surrounding that scene, we will never know with certainty what killed this particular reindeer — whether it died at the jaws of a mammalian predator and was merely scavenged by an opportunistic eagle, or killed by an eagle itself.

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