The Great Scandinavian Musk Ox War

October 14, 2016

Last month, a lonely musk ox named Brutus wandered far from his herd in Sweden and stole the country’s heart. Brutus was hoping to find a mate, but his roaming took him so far afield that there were no females within miles. Local and national news organizations covered his plight.

Myskoxe.se, a Swedish website dedicated to musk oxen, is keeping detailed track of his journey, posting brief updates and paparazzi-style photos. “Brutus is out hiking,” they wrote on September 12. “What he has in mind—it is not known.”

Sweden loves Brutus because he’s big, shaggy, and lovelorn, with the limpid eyes and curved horns of a classic Hollywood bad boy. But they also love him because he’s living proof that, 45 years ago, the country got one over on one of their neighbors. Brutus is the descendant of a group of oxen that defected from Norway in 1971, defying all convention and providing Sweden with some measure of closure after decades of musk-ox related strife.

The story of the Great Scandinavian Musk Ox Rivalry begins about 11,000 years ago. Up until that point, musk oxen ranged throughout the Northern Hemisphere, munching on grass and lichen and standing around looking stately in the snow. But as the Ice Age slowly ended, thaws and hungry humans drove them out of much of their habitat. By the 1900s, the world’s only musk ox herds were in Northern Canada and Greenland.

Also in Greenland were a number of Norwegian hunters, taking advantage of their country’s claim on the eastern half of the land mass. These hunters killed enough musk oxen that Denmark, which had claimed the western half, got angry with them, saying they were on track to drive the animals to extinction.

Hoping to save face, in the 1920s, a polar researcher named Adolf Hoel made a suggestion: why not bring some musk oxen to Norway, a place which, given its climate and general superiority, they might like even better than Greenland? “These measures to translocate muskoxen will partially disarm [this] criticism,” Hoel wrote. “We will show with it that we don’t only slaughter, but that we too support cross-border idealistic cultural work.”

Hoel’s case was bolstered by a couple of fossilized musk ox vertebrae that had been uncovered during the digging of the national railroad. “In the minds of people in the 1920s and ’30s, there was this idea that the musk ox was a Norwegian animal,” says Dolly Jørgensen, an environmental historian at Luleå University of Technology in Sweden.

“Because Norway claimed East Greenland, and there were musk ox in East Greenland, that means the musk ox are Norwegian.” Hoel, then the head of what would become the Norwegian Polar Institute, began fundraising, writing to shipping companies, chocolate factories, and the Crown Prince. Over the course of a couple of decades, he and his successors managed to bring dozens of musk ox calves into Norway, letting them loose in Svalbard, and in the Dovre mountains, near the border with Sweden.

For years, the musk oxen wandered around Norway, munching and multiplying and frightening the occasional hiker. Then came the winter of 1952. Maybe the herds were hungry, or maybe they were just bored. For whatever reason, a small group crossed the frozen swamps on the Norway-Sweden border and ended up in Kiruna, where they were spotted by some Swedes.

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