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Death dances with wolves

A Letter from Norway, where wild canines are being killed despite their protected status

A letter from Norway, where wild canines are being killed despite their protected status
In 2020-2021, permisson was granted to shoot 57 out of a total of 103 to 106 wolves living in Norway. Illegal hunting is the major cause of wolf mortality in Scandinavia, contributing to nearly half half of all wolf deaths (Source: wwf.no)

Kindness is the prime virtue in Norway. We are kind to each other, and kind to each other’s children. Norwegian statistics show this, and they show that our children are happier than yours. Our adults too. We’re even kind to murderers here, because we know they’re less likely to kill us when they get out. As an organising principle for a society, kindness works.

In Norway, if you have a hunting licence, you can shoot any wild animal you want

But Norwegian kindness only extends so far. If you have a hunting licence, you can pretty much shoot any wild animal you want. I don’t mind much, as long as you eat your grouse, or your roe deer, or your moose. But I do mind when it comes to the wolf.

When Britain exterminated the wolf 250 years ago we didn’t understand the consequences. That it damaged everything from the deer populations to the health of the trees. Now Norway is doing the same with its own wolves, but it’s doing it now. Only three breeding pairs are to be left alive, along with a small number of cubs.

Thank God, then, that there is an environmental umbrella group dedicated to protecting these beautiful, complex animals. Jan Pahle Koritzinsky is a founding member of ARV (which in Norwegian stands for Active Predator Protection). A court stopped the wolf hunt this year, but on the evening of Friday 3 February, when Jan was in the sauna, his phone rang. A higher court had overturned the ban and the Norwegian wolf hunt was back on.

Jan calls the government’s predator management programme a “policy of extinction”

Jan is a quietly heroic man, tall, lean, and powerful. He takes a lot of saunas. He’s appalled by the brutality of the hunt. Entire packs are to be destroyed, including their nine-month-old pups. The government calls this “predator management”. Jan calls it a policy of extinction. He got on the phone. In twenty minutes he assembled a team. All without leaving the sauna.

Jan Pahle Koritzinsky is a founding member of ARV (which stands for Active Predator Protection in Norwegian), an organisation dedicated to protecting wolves. PHOTO: JAN PAHLE KORITZINSKY, INSTAGRAM

Two days later I’m driving through endless snowy forest to meet Jan and his team. This is Ulvåa, a remote part of southern Norway near the border with Sweden. You never see the wolves here except when they’re dead or dying, held up a grinning middle-aged man in a badly posed photo, though you do see wolf tracks.

I suppose I could rehearse the hunters’ case for you (that the wolf is a danger to people and to livestock), but the case makes no sense and the salient facts are these: the Norwegian wolf population is depleted genetically and in severe danger of extinction. Packs are kept below sustainable sizes. Mothers mate with sons; daughters with fathers. The hunters act with impunity, unafraid of the law. And the international community doesn’t know.

All eight wolves of the Ulvåa pack are to be destroyed. Jan and his team will do what they can to prevent that, and they will document illegal activity by the hunters if they observe it.

As I near the meeting point I see prey animals: first deer, then, in the trees by the side of the road, two vast moose, moving fast on spindly legs. Then, by a frozen river, two men out with a dog. Hunters? I slow, but don’t speak to the men. And although the men are in fact Jan and his friend Helge, they do not flag down my car because they are wondering if I am a hunter. Today there are 60 active hunters in the area, not all of them friendly. On some days there are 160.

We speak on the phone. We meet. We laugh. The ice quickly breaks, especially because they have to dig my car out of a ditch. The snow here is deep. Helge is a competition-level skydiver. He works for a company that makes solar panels. And he’s here every year, protecting the wolf. Two years ago, Helge tells me, he and a group of friends were held for two hours by a group of armed hunters, several of whom were drunk. It was dark and it was cold. When the police arrived, the hunters were not charged. The drunkest of them was allowed to drive home.

“Isn’t that highly illegal?” I say. Helge smiles a what-can-you-do smile. The local police side with the hunters, he says. Last year they simply ejected the wolf-protectors from the area. “Conflict reduction”, the police call it.

I spend the day shadowing Helge and Nikolai, a media analyst from Oslo. Nikolai is young and highly articulate, but when I ask him why he is here, words desert him. The hunt, the government’s sanctioning of it – it all upsets him viscerally. “It’s about so much more than just the wolf,” he tells me after a while. We talk about how wolves take out weaker prey animals, how this benefits the whole ecosystem: healthier deer, healthier trees, fewer diseases.

I tell Nikolai that if there’s anything I shouldn’t film, they can tell me to stop. “You can film anything you like,” he says. “We have nothing to hide.”

And so I’m filming at 12:33 when I am assaulted by a hunter whose car is blocking a road. “Sir, are you legally allowed to close the road?” I ask. “Sir, is there a reason you won’t speak to me?”

The hunter launches himself at me. He knocks the phone from my hand to stop me filming. Perhaps he doesn’t like me asking him questions, in English. “Sir, was it your intention to assault me?”
“You can fuck off!” he yells in my face.
“Nice guys,” says Nikolai as we walk back toward the car. Helge and I laugh. But it sets a strange tone. If this is a legal hunt, why can’t we observe it? Under Norwegian law you may go where you like, film what you like.

When I look back at the clip I see that the polite young woman I spoke to just before the hunter hit me is carrying a silenced rifle. Nikolai will later film the same woman apparently hunting after nightfall. That would be illegal. But so much of what happens here looks illegal, especially at night, when the wolves are at their most active.

Often one of the protectors will sleep outside to be near the wolves, waking if they hear movement. Unlike Sweden, Norway does not allow the hunters to set their dogs on the wolves, yet at night “tracking dogs” harry and tire them. Helge is certain that the dogs are used to drive wolves from the safe areas into the killing zone, ready for the guns of the hunters the next day. This isn’t legal, but it seems to happen anyway. The wolf pack is fenced in using flag lines, wires dotted with flapping fabric, which the wolves fear and will not pass below.

It’s the middle of the afternoon. We come to a stop. The stench of dead flesh is overpowering, even at minus ten. Helga and I put on snowshoes. Helge leads me out across the snow to a moose carcass in a sheltered hollow. It snowed overnight. Yesterday there were human footprints around this carcass.

“You mean this was dragged here by hunters?” Helge nods. Yesterday he found a camera mounted on a nearby tree, set to film the carcass. Using baited camera traps to bring wolves into the area and alert the hunters would be illegal. “Maybe with this evidence we can get the hunt stopped,” he says. “Yes,” says Nikolai when we get back to the car, “maybe this is a smoking gun.”

The protection work is mainly logistics. Lots of maps. Lots of phone calls. Lots of blocked roads. By nightfall no wolves have been killed.

The mood lightens. Does it feel strange, I say, that you never see the animals you are protecting? No, says Helge. It’s a sign you’re doing something right. And the wolves are clever – you follow fresh tracks for a short while before they disappear, and when you make your way back to base you realise the wolves have doubled back and been tracking you for hours, always just out of sight.

But the courts do not stop the hunt. Over the next ten days six of the eight Ulvåa wolves are killed. One nine-month-old cub has its back leg shot off. The hunter responsible posts a photograph of her on Facebook. There is outrage among the wolf protectors. She appears to have been posed for the camera, alive and bleeding into the snow. Still the courts will not stop the hunt. Later that day, one of the wolf protectors will find her corpse and close her eyes.

“And we did save two wolves this year,” several people tell me. That’s not nothing. Still… where, you have to ask, are the police? In this, the most open society on earth, why does the wolf hunt seem to be immune to the law? Official policy is to kill every last wolf, barring three breeding pairs and their cubs.

Every time see that number I think it can’t be true. I check it and I recheck it. The wolf is a red-listed species and Norway is required by international law to protect it. Where is the international outcry? Where are the sanctions?

Ben McPherson is the author of  “The Island” and “A Line of Blood” (both HarperCollins). He lives in Oslo

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Letter from Elsewhere, Life, March 2023

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