Reindeer Herders in Finland On Front Line of Wolf Wars


By Stephen Castle

SUOMUSSALMI, Finland – Close to the tiny Finnish village of Saaravaara, bloody tracks lead through the snow to the frozen carcass of an 8-month-old male reindeer lying on its side, its neck torn, its underbelly ripped open.

Saaravaara, near the Russian border, is reindeer country.

Within minutes, Ilmari Schepel, a local agriculture official, identified the culprit: a wolf. His evidence was the shape of the bite to the animal’s throat and the belly tear; wolves are particularly fond of reindeer intestines.

This town, a 20-minute drive from Finland’s border with Russia and more than 605 kilometers northeast of Helsinki, is on the front line of Finland’s wolf wars. The fight is between backers of European Union regulations, which are meant to halt sharp drops in the population of wolves and other endangered predators across Europe, and the roughly 7,000 reindeer herders whose livelihoods are threatened by increased attacks on their animals.

Finland, which joined the European Union in 1995, came under criticism that its hunting practices did not mesh with European habitat directives. So in 2001, the Finnish government tightened its hunting laws to meet European Union standards. Finnish law now states that every kill must be covered by a permit and restricts the number of permits to about 10 percent of a particular predator’s known numbers.

Seven years later, the populations of wolves, lynxes, brown bears and wolverines in Finland have grown substantially, according to the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry in Helsinki. In this area, the number of wolves has roughly tripled since 1996, and attacks on reindeer herds have increased more than threefold in the past 10 years.

The level of anger about the hunting restrictions is high here. In one telling example, Stavros Dimas, the European environment commissioner who insisted on the hunting crackdown to protect the endangered predators, received a bullet in his mailbox from an irate hunter.

Asko Moilanen, 40, a third-generation herder, said that because of his losses to predators over the past three years, his income from reindeer has been reduced to almost nothing. “Either we should be allowed to hunt or they should pay compensation for the real losses,” he said. “It affects my whole life and my family.”

Mr. Moilanen, who is married with four children, depends on his wife’s earnings to make a living. “The people are poor here, but I am a beggar. Last year on my tax return, I declared just 100 dollars earned from herding.”

Herders complain that state compensation for lost reindeer – each carcass fetches about $439 – is inadequate because it fails to take account the remains of those that are never found. The Agriculture and Forestry Ministry says the herders are fairly compensated.

In much of Finland, reindeer hold a hallowed place in the collective imagination. Farther north toward the Arctic Circle, Lapland is the supposed home of Santa Claus and his flying reindeer. Less sentimental Finns enjoy eating reindeer: fried, sautéed, smoked or cold.

Before Finnish law was amended in 2001, there were few restrictions on hunting of predators here.

For its part, the European Commission insists that, under the European Habitats Directive, wolves have the right to be protected. “Men and wolves have lived together for centuries, and there is no reason why they should not continue to do so,” said Barbara Helfferich, a spokeswoman for Mr. Dimas, the European environment commissioner. “We need to ensure coexistence and protect the species according to the law.”

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