Fur flies over reindeer herds

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Reindeer owners in Northern Norway were furious this week that Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) revealed the size of their herds, and revealed that some owners had built up their herds in advance of new state demands that they be reduced. State officials claim the grazing reindeer can’t find enough food, and that owners must slaughter animals or face heavy fines.

There are too many reindeer grazing for too little food in Norway's far north, and state officials are demanding a reduction in reindeer herds. Reindeer owners have now been caught "sabotaging" the state slaughtering orders. PHOTO: Landbruks- og Matdepartementet

There are too many reindeer grazing for too little food in Norway’s far north, and state officials are demanding a reduction in reindeer herds. Some reindeer owners have now been caught “sabotaging” state slaughter orders. PHOTO: Landbruks- og Matdepartementet

Tensions over reindeer grazing have hung over Northern Norway for years, and the actual size of herds has long been kept secret. The Sami reindeer herders, according to spokeswoman Ellinor Marita Jåma, view their herds the way most people view their bank accounts or income: private and no one’s business but their own.

The sheer number of reindeer in Norway’s northern counties of Finnmark and Nord-Troms, though, has very much become the business of state officials and not least veterinarians. They claim there are several thousand reindeer too many at present, and not enough food for them to graze. As a result, one state vet told NRK, many animals are emaciated and suffering, and their meat can’t be sold as food.

Many reindeer owners have thus been ordered to reduce their herds by slaughtering animals, to reduce the pressure on grazing areas. Mikkel Mathis M Eira of Kautokeino, for example, has been told that if he doesn’t reduce his herd, he can be hit with fines of more than NOK 900,000. Another owner said she’s been threatened with fines of NOK 65,000 a month if she doesn’t slaughter animals.

Landbruks- og matminister Sylvi Listhaug og leder av Rávdol siida, Johan Mathis Eira ute på beiteområdet. Rávdol siida består av tre siidaandeler og har de siste årene hatt et stabilt antall rein og stabile slaktevekter.

Agriculture Minister Sylvi Listhaug with Johan Mathis Eira in Finnmark last winter. Now she’s meeting resistance among other Sami reindeer owners, who don’t want to reduce their herds and want to keep the size of their herds secret. PHOTO: Landbruks- og Matdepartementet

“This is all about ensuring that the reindeer we have in Norway will have a good life,” Agriculture Minister Sylvi Listhaug told NRK. “We want to make sure we have an ecologically sustainable reindeer industry in which animals don’t starve to death.” There currently are 95,838 reindeer in West Finnmark alone, according to NRK, and the state wants that reduced by 18,288 before April 1.

State officials are told how many reindeer each owner has, but the herd counts have never been made public. NRK obtained the numbers, though, and published them this week. That not only infuriated many owners but also revealed that some had actually been increasing the size of their herds, if only to then reduce them to avoid fines. The net result would be that their herd size stayed the same.

‘Sabotage’
Eira said he’ll likely go along with the forced slaughter, to avoid fines, while another owner, Berit Marie Eira, was defiant. “We have the choice of going along with the slaughter demand or giving up all we own and move into a lavvo (traditional tent-like shelters),” she told NRK. “Everyone agrees there are too many reindeer in some areas, but I, along with many others, don’t like the process that the authorities are pushing through. We feel overrun.” She claims that local laws governing reindeer ownership secure owners the right to set their herd sizes themselves, and she called the increase in herds “a form of protest” against the authorities. Rasmus Hansson of the Greens Party called it “sabotage” of state measures, approved by Parliament, to improve animal welfare.

Meanwhile, many reindeer owners remained angry that NRK published herd sizes that not only documented the “sabotage” but overturned decades of secrecy. “I couldn’t  believe my own eyes, these are numbers that are not supposed to be made public,” Marit Kirsten Anti Gaup, who represents the Labour Party in the Sami Parliament and has a son who owns reindeer, told the journalist union’s professional journal Journalisten on Friday. She wants to report NRK to the National Press Complaints Board, while others welcome NRK’s effort to bring the numbers into the open, especially when they documented reindeer owners’ efforts to circumvent measures to reduce herds.

‘Undemocratic’
Press officials contend NRK violated no rules by publishing the numbers, arguing that their confidentiality applies only to public sector officials who aren’t supposed to share them. Jan Gunnar Furuly, a journalist at newspaper Aftenposten with roots in Finnmark who leads Norway’s investigative journalism organization SKUP, praised NRK’s journalism. He called it “undemocratic” to expect that journalists would refrain from publishing the numbers because of old traditions of confidentiality. “I can only say ‘welcome to the 21st century,'” Furuly told Journalisten.

Listhaug, the agricultural minister, said she’s been considering removing the confidentiality clause herself. “It’s a bit strange that there’s not openness around this issue,” she said, “because we (the state) in general want as large a degree of openness as possible.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund