Bringing Back Carnivores
Image Credit: Per Harald Olsen, NTNU, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped
In my previous posts on rewilding and wild boar, I talked about the effects of reintroducing species that were previously found in Norway. Now, I want to talk more about the large carnivores in Scandinavia which serve as protection against invasive species. This opinion piece is coming from an ecologist and a foreigner, so treat this like a Scandic breakfast buffet and take what you want.
Where did the growing populations of carnivores come from?
The history of Scandinavian carnivores – namely the brown bear, wolf, lynx and wolverine – is broadly similar across species. There were diverse populations until the 1800s, when humans equipped with guns and fear drove the carnivores to or over the brink of extinction. Then, around the 1970s, through migration from countries where remote populations were able to persist and/or through protective legislation, populations slowly began to recover. Now that species are growing in size, people are starting to have mixed feelings about sharing their land with hungry predators.
The Social Perspective
The great litmus test: are the carnivores in Scandinavia a menace or an important species to protect? Your response to this question could be an indication of your socio-economic background and where you live. Norwegians, particularly young people and those living in urban populations, support the rights of carnivores to exist. However, most people do not want to live near them. Rural farmers are the most likely to disapprove the growth of wild carnivore populations, citing concerns about hunting of sheep and semi-domesticated reindeer and public safety, though it is worth noting that carnivores do not tend to attack people. The last recorded bear-related death in Norway was in 1906. Despite publicly supporting the protection of carnivores, the Norwegian government is simultaneously sponsoring the culling of wolf packs and the removal of wolverine dens. Carnivores are able to access human-owned prey largely because of historic, culturally rooted practices of letting livestock graze free in the spring and summer.
The Biological Perspective
I like to think of an ecosystem as a game of Jenga. If humans continually shuffle around and remove species the whole system will collapse. While we may seem to be talking about wolves, wild boar, or the common ragweed we are actually talking about all the species near and far. The effects of adding or removing species influences what species feed on, competition between species, and secondary effects. While there are short term economic benefits to saving livestock or crops, there are long-term consequences to removing species ranging from flooding to annual payments for culling rampant deer populations. I think we should all support protecting carnivores so we can protect the ecosystems we depend on.
The Way Forward
It’s all well and good to aim for the reintroduction of predators, but without accounting for the aforementioned rural farmers division will continue to plague this issue. The tradition of free-grazing livestock may need to be rethought, and education on dealing with local presence of predators should be pushed in rural communities. Scandinavian governments will need to help with both, and conservationists will need to make an effort to connect with those on the other side of the debate, if a more diverse, stable ecosystem is to be achieved.
In mainland Australia we have done an effective job of limiting the Dingo. And the cat and the fox were introduced and have grown dramatically. So we don’t have a carnivore at the top of the food chain and the cat in particular is responsible for killing thousands of small native animals and birds. In my mind we desperately need to allow the dingo back and we need a programme to eradicate the cat and the fox. Except that everyone love little kittens.
Public perception is a huge issue here. Cats and (to a lesser degree) foxes are seen as cute, whereas dingoes are seen as a threat. Bringing back dingoes could work, and could also help control our exploding kangaroo populations.