Unmanaged wild reindeer populations tend to follow cyclical behaviour, and domesticated reindeer populations often show cyclical behaviour, too. In this contribution, we intend to use the long-term development of two areas in northern Scandinavia to explore how externally imposed policies and winter climate variability have influenced the reindeer herd size and pasture state. We do this by comparing the development in two areas that are rather similar ecologically: Torneträsk in northernmost Sweden and Kautokeino (Vest-Finnmark) in northernmost Norway.
Climatic and ecological studies as well as commons theory have been useful tools for understanding the inherent socio-ecological dynamics. Especially the time from 1850 to 1940 includes several short periods when historical sources document combinations of events such as (1) closure of national borders to cross-border herding migrations, (2) relocations of herder households, (3) overutilization of lichen pastures, (4) catastrophic winters, and (5) forced herd reductions. The high number of incidents and actions during this era makes it challenging to disentangle causes and effects.
Our main findings are based on the documented effects of international events and consequent government policies and actions in Fennoscandia from 1852 to 1921 which had dramatic consequences, including excessive numbers of reindeer and people in northernmost Sweden, leading to more or less forced relocation southwards in Sweden with cascading effects in large parts of Sápmi. We have found clear indications that this contributed to overutilization of lichen pastures and beyond any reasonable doubt must also have reinforced the effects of several of the documented catastrophic climatic events, especially in areas like Torneträsk to where many families from Finnmark were relocated. From the first border closure in 1852 to the Second World War it thus seems as if the shocks from the political events were the main factor determining the development of reindeer herding in large parts of Sápmi. The political and administrative history is well documented. Our climate data are a unique compilation of climate events based on multiple sources during two centuries, which contribute to the validity of our findings. Our pasture state data from the late-1800s are also based on several sources which support each other.
Two new factors influencing the general cyclical pattern have arisen more recently. Motorization has increased the possibilities for intense pasture utilization and the amplitudes between minimum and maximum herd sizes, while supplementary feeding has the potential to limit the effects of winter climate variability and lichen overutilization.