Fredrik Widemo: The Manifold Conflicts Behind the Hunting Industry

Image Credit: USFWS Endangered Species, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped

Rewilding is a tricky business. Bringing back species that once roamed a country as their native land may seem like a worthy cause, but it is often fraught with conflict. People don’t want predators threatening their safety, or herbivores destroying their crops. Rural vs. urban tensions come into play. Local and federal politics get thrown into the mix.

With that in mind, I sat down with Associate Professor Fredrik Widemo, currently a Senior lecturer with the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. Fredrik has previously worked at both the Swedish Association for Hunting and Wildlife Management (where he was the Director of Science) and the Swedish Biodiversity Centre. We explored some of the complexities behind the rewilding of wolves and its effects on the hunting and forestry industries in Sweden.

Sam Perrin (SP): I can’t think of a more controversial species in the hunting debate here than the wolf. Could you give us a brief history of the wolf in Sweden?

Fredrik Widemo (FW): In Sweden, the wolf was hunted with a bounty up until 1967. The last one was shot in ‘66. And then it was protected. They were being hunted back in the 17th-19th century and into the 20th century. So whoever came up with the idea of the bounty managed to get rid of the wolf. Quite often before the bounty there weren’t that many wolves left in southern and central Sweden, but more would come in from Russia and Finland. They were quite often killed by reindeer keepers.

Then we had two immigrants that all of a sudden turned up in the county of Varmland in 1981. Nothing much happened initially. They were there, there were discussions about actually bringing wolves back, even the Swedish Association for Hunting and Wild Management was initially in favour (they’re still taking heat for that). Then a third one came in, which reduced inbreeding enough that they started getting cubs. So the population started to increase, still highly inbred. They were all breeding with each other from just those three individuals. But some additional immigrants came in and the population took off. We started having problems with wolves taking sheep and hunting dogs.

SP: And they prey on moose, which cause trouble by inflicting damage on commercial timber and crops. Has that mediated the damage at all?

FW: Recently hunters have started complaining about the wolves taking a lot of moose. Now the wolves do kill moose, but the hunters will adapt how much they harvest based on wolf presence. So it has been the case that you quite often find denser moose populations inside wolf territories than outside. The hunters overcompensate basically. Whether through not wanting to hunt them and risk having their dogs taken, or from just knowing the wolves are taking the moose and hunters have to shoot less. So the wolves have had little effect on the browsing damage that moose cause. If anything the damage levels have increased because there are more moose not less.

SP: The rural vs. urban dynamic is a problem in many parts of the world. Here in Sweden and Norway it seems particularly strong. What seems to be at the root of it, at least in this context?

FW: There’s a difference between Sweden and Norway. For a long time, Norway has had a strong focus on ‘the rural tradition’. Politicians in Norway have always made sure that the rural parts of Norway get enough money and support so that you can still live and be a farmer in rural Norway. There has been very little of that in Sweden. You sink or swim. And if it’s difficult to live in the countryside, that’s tough luck, move if you find it too difficult. There has been much more focus on keeping schools, keeping social infrastructure working in the rural areas of Norway, as opposed to Sweden. And that has in some ways bred resentment. Plenty of people in rural Sweden are not happy with the government, more or less regardless of who is currently in power. This also goes for national authorities.

In the case of wolves, you certainly have effects locally. A lot of people who are still living in the countryside are farmers or hunters, or work in the forest. Probably, rural people realise to a larger degree that everyone lives off the landscape, as compared to urban citizens. We have a large forestry industry and we harvest game populations. You can’t just sit in cities and go to the shops. And certainly there has been a growing resentment from people in the countryside claiming that people in Stockholm, especially the voters of the Green party, don’t realise that it’s people in the countryside that are producing the food they are eating, the wood for their furniture. And those people in Stockholm are the ones who decide we must have wolves. But as soon as a wolf gets close to Stockholm, people get scared about wolves near their kindergartens and demand that they be shot. “Not in my backyard” is very much present in this case. This is not true only for the wolf situation but it certainly is one place where it does manifest itself very clearly.

SP: I used to think that conflict was very simple. But in Sweden in particular there are more layers to it. Forestry companies also have a say for instance.

FW: Well it used to be if Swedish forests were damaged it was due to moose browsing on pine. Forest companies probably were hoping that the wolves would reduce the moose populations so you had less problems with the damage. What we have is more or less the opposite because the hunters have reduced their take. That’s probably making it more difficult for hunters to fill the quotas that they have been more or less assigned by the forest companies. Especially if they lease the hunting right from the forest companies, then the forest companies will be decidedly unhappy if the quotas are not filled. So that can be a part of the conflict as well.

But of course in general, society is expecting hunters to reduce problems with damaged crops, damaged forests, traffic accidents including game, and things like that. And it’s getting more and more complicated because some of the populations are actually increasing. Not the moose or roe deer, but fallow deer and red deer are still increasing. We’ve probably managed to at least reduce the rate of growth for the wild boar. But also, almost all geese species are increasing. You have swans, cranes, species that we don’t hunt yet. But the farmer’s organisation wants them hunted, because the damage from them is substantial. Yet the hunters don’t advocate this, at least yet, as it is the farmers’ problem and not particularly interesting for hunters.

SP: Is there an awareness of the fact that we are trying to solve human created problems with more human interference?

FW: This concept certainly gets kicked around, but if you look at the actual numbers, you would need between 5 and 8,000 wolves to kill the same number of moose that we shoot each year in Sweden. And you’re not going to fit that population of wolves in. And that’s just for moose. We also have the roe deer that we shoot 100,000 of, the wild boar that we shoot 110,000 of. Plus fallow deer, red deer. There’s just no way that we can get other predators than man to regulate those numbers. For all those species, man is the main predator, as in most of the world. Look at what is happening with the wolves in Yellowstone, or the combined predator guild in the Serenghetti. They take about 25-30% of the individuals, which is actually what the hunters in Sweden and Norway are taking. So today’s predation rate harvest by hunters is just what it would be in a natural system without humans. And an ecosystem without humans is of course a false representation of an ecosystem. We are part of the ecosystem the way I see it, there’s no natural state without humans. We are one species, unfortunately influencing natural events to a much larger extent than I would want, but we are still part of the ecosystem. There’s nothing out there that we don’t affect to some degree, whether it’s through hunting or e.g. releasing nitrogen.

The concept is being kicked around, but I would say that it’s not really embraced by many of the professional managers or authorities because they realise that it would mean we would not be able to keep sheep or cows. We can’t expect the wolves to have this immediate ecological effect. We’re not going to get that as long as we regulate the ungulates through hunting. Just by getting wolves back, we wouldn’t get what’s happening in Yellowstone. Because we’re already extracting these cervids to the same degree as the wolves would. Hunters could reduce their hunting, hopefully the predators would still fill the void, but that would be pretty erratic. You wouldn’t get a constant management plan, you would have packs merging, packs dissolving, wolves killing each other, all of a sudden lots of wolves in one place and none over there. You would get a much less reliable game management if wolves are doing the job.


Whilst wolf populations are capable of suppressing moose browsing somewhat, it would likely happen on a much more erratic scale (Image Credit: Yellowstone National Park, Public Domain Mark 1.0)

SP: Do you think hunters would be worried about reductions in their quotas?

FW: Probably, but I still think that it would more be a case of hunters are more worried about having their dogs taken, and not being able to hunt in the traditional way. Almost all hunters that have hunting dogs consider them as a sort of family member. The way you traditionally hunt moose in Sweden and Norway with our old traditional hunting dog breeds is that those dogs run about 1km out on their own looking for moose. Then they go out again, come back, go out, come back. It’s a bloody risky business, and they will start barking if they find a moose. And all the wolves will hear them, and know there’s someone in their territory. They will go for them. So hunters may not get a dog anymore, they don’t want to risk it, or they will get another breed that doesn’t run away quite as far, so there’s a reduced risk of a wolf encountering the dog, and you will also have a shorter distance to run up to it if you understand that something’s gone wrong.

SP: You moved at one stage in your career from the Swedish Biodiversity Association to the Swedish Hunting Association. Did priorities shift between the two centres?

FW: Not at all. One reason I started at the Swedish Hunting Association was that I realised as a conservation specialist and a hunter, that a lot of the activities that hunters are doing in order to benefit game are really conservation activities. They’re creating more suitable landscape and shelter for the game species. This is being done exactly with the same aim as conservation work, usually using the same methods, but the hunters were not calling in conservation. They would call in game management. So I came into the organisation and told them that they were doing exactly what the authorities want them to do, and what they want to convince the public to do. But the authorities and the public didn’t know it because the hunters wouldn’t call it conservation. So I brought exactly what I was doing at the Centre for Biodiversity in the Hunting Association, but I tried to get the hunters and the Hunters Organisation to start being clever basically marketing all the good stuff they were doing. Some of the game wardens would tell me that they didn’t want to do conservation, they were doing game management, they didn’t want to call it conservation. But they were doing the same thing.

Unfortunately because of the wolf, there’s many hunters, not all of them of course, but quite a few of the hunters who you’ll encounter on social media, who don’t want to be associated with the conservation bodies. They don’t want to be associated with organic food, they don’t want to be associated with anything that has to do with conservation, because those actions are advocated by the people who want to have wolves. I think this limits the potential impact in society from all the good activities performed by hunters, where they actively create a more varied landscape rich in biodiversity.

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