Tora Dirke Lundberg | 7 March 2023
The story of the wolf is old in the Nordic countries, and it is constantly recurring in the public debate (e.g., the 2023 changes and reactions to the new regulations on wolf-hunting in Sweden). The mere existence of it in contemporary Sweden is perceived by some as a controversy (Ekengren, 2012). At the same time, the preservation of the wolf in the Swedish fauna is perceived by others as essential to a prosperous ‘natural’ Swedish ecosystem (Ekengren, 2012; Sandahl & Alarik, 2023). This has led to a debate on whether the wolf should be eliminated or preserved in Sweden (Ekengren, 2012). The conflict is significant and has resulted in the poaching of wolves as well as serious threats of violence being made towards people on both sides (e.g., Bard, 2021; Säfström, 2012; TT, 2011). I propose a third aspect of the debate, namely, to regard the conflict as one of stories, heritage and neglect. Rather than seeing wolves as the primary problem, understanding stories and heritage about the wolf can add to the debate about its existence in Sweden.
But first, some background to the debate. The question of the existence of the wolf is political in Sweden. ‘Wolf advocates’ and ‘wolf opponents’ are obvious camps. Looking at concrete political examples, the Swedish Social Democratic Party stated in 2019 that they identified ‘the wolf debate’ as an issue often used by right-wing politicians and parties to create political polarization amongst the Swedish general public (Burström, 2019). Further, those who are ‘pro wolves’ perceive the rhetoric of anti-wolf groups as increasing political polarization (Ekengren 2012). Interestingly, people’s perception of being in the political ‘centre’ or ‘periphery’ is fundamental in the creation of narratives, as well as in the construction of the problem surrounding wolves (Ekengren, 2012). Within the debate, different actors emerge and form particular alliances that challenge otherwise dichotomous relations. For example, people that are usually allied with the Sami people against natural exploitation are opponents to them when it concerns the preservation of the wolf. Thus, there are basically two stands in the contemporary public debate.
However, in historically contextualizing the issue, it becomes evident that there is more to the story. Carnivore preservation (including the Wolf) only started to become an important matter on the state’s political agenda when wolves were driven away from the south of Sweden (Dirke, 2014). Once this was achieved, wolves, and other carnivores, became a problem for the Sami people in the north. The Sami people perceived this as an injustice (Dirke, 2014).
Further, although wolves could indeed cause damage in Sweden (today, as well as historically), the extent to which they are portrayed as child eating monsters (both in old stories and in contemporary media) does not align with the empirical data on the potential impact that Nordic wolves have on people (Strandén-Backa, 2021). Additionally, first-hand experiences with wolves are secondary to how stories about wolves affect attitudes towards them (Karlsson & Sjöström, 2007). Fundamentally, the uneven way the Swedish state has been managing the wolf in the north and south signals its structural neglect of the Sami people, which may be a more pressing issue than the wolves per se. Thus, as wolves have been pushed from the south to the north, the narrative surrounding the wolf changed in the places where it no longer exists. The wolf is seen as worthy of protection in the south, and as a problem in the north. It seems that stories and heritage, both old and new, about the wolf rather than wolves themselves, play a prominent role in the human conflict surrounding it.
The wolf debate is particularly emotional and intense in Sweden (Ekengren 2012; Sjölander-Lindqvist, 2006). Stories and perceptions of rights, heritage and history collide, creating tensions among different groups in society. To this end, I propose not only seeing the wolf debate as one of differing narratives but also a history we’d rather forget (i.e., ‘negative’ heritage, Rico 2008). In doing so, the understanding of heritage as something more than just positive nostalgia is expanded, and the political aspects of heritage—what is remembered and what is forgotten—might be unravelled. In the case of the wolf in Sweden, understanding it as a conflict of ‘negative’ heritage is a way of giving it more depth. Hopefully, understanding the wolf debate as a conflict of different narratives and priorities between people can lead to more constructive conversations on the issue in the future. In looking beyond the big bad wolf, we might find something even scarier: neglect and inability to support people far away from the centre of political power, where the wolf becomes a distraction.
Tora Dirke Lundberg is an MA student in Global Studies at the School of Global Studies (SGS), University of Gothenburg. During the fall of 2022, she did an internship in a research project on land right litigation in Sápmi, also at SGS. The post reflects her views and is not part of the research project.
Dirke, Karin (2014) “Lodjursmöten i fakta och fiktion” pp. 61–80, in Roger Bergström, Kjell Danell & Ingvar Svanberg (eds.), Lodjuret, Stockholm: Atlantis.
Ekengren, Ann-Marie (2012) “Vargfrågan och politiska skiljelinjer : intressemobilisering i Sverige”, Statsvetenskaplig tidskrift, 114(4): 523-550.