Possible record year for arctic fox in Nordics with 762 cubs counted in 2022

A file photo of an arctic fox in Finland. The number of arctic fox cubs in 2022 shows the positive impact of cross-border cooperation, says the WWF. (Seppo Keränen / Courtesy WWF)

The arctic fox population across the Nordic region has been in freefall for decades, but recent data suggests cross-border cooperation between Finland, Norway and Sweden is helping turn things around.

Some 762 cubs were counted in the three countries in summer of 2022, described by WWF Finland has a record year.

In addition, 164 arctic fox dens were documented in the three Nordic countries: 72 in Norway, 91 in Sweden and one in Finnish Lapland, the first one documented in the country since 1996. It was located in the Enontekiö fell area in the western Arctic.

“It’s great news and a great example of species conservation,” Petteri Tolvanen, program director at WWF Finland told Eye on the Arctic in phone interview. 

“In the long term we have to stop the global warming,”says Petteri Tolvanen from WWF Finland, pictured here in Kilpisjärvi visiting an arctic fox feeding station. “Because if we don’t, climate change will make us lose the arctic fox habitat and the whole tundra ecosystem in Finland.” (Maria Rautio-Runeberg / Courtesy WWF)

Failure of species to thrive remains a mystery

The decline in the arctic fox goes back almost a century when hunting wiped out almost the entire population, Tolvanen said.

The arctic fox has been protected in Finland in the 1940s but the population never rebounded as expected.

To this day, the reasons why are murky.

“We don’t have a definitive scientific answer,” Tolvanen said.

“Some of it is linked to climate change but we know that the failure of the population to rebound started well before we started seeing [global warming] in the North. So we know there are several contributing reasons even though they don’t give us a full explanation.”

Arctic foxes shown in Finland. The animal’s fur darkens in the summer to better blend in with the landscape. (Seppo Keränen / Courtesy WWF)

Another factor is the expansion of the red fox range. The animal is bigger and stronger than the arctic fox and so can outcompete it for dens, food and can even predate on arctic fox pups.

Increased human activity in the North from things like tourism and fishing appears to be one factor drawing the red fox north, Tolvanen said.

“There’s more food for red fox around the settlements, and it’s not far from the settlements to the tundra,” he said. “And then in order to protect reindeer, there’s an absence of wolves in the North which are a predator for red foxes so that’s another factor.”

Key initiatives making a difference 

One the key conservation efforts for the arctic fox is establishing feeding stations, something now being done in Finland.

“It’s based on systems in place in Norway and Sweden,” Tolvanen said. “The feeders are made so the entrance is big enough for an arctic fox, but too small for a red fox to get in.”

Arctic fox by the numbers
An arctic fox in Finland. The animal has been protected in Finland in the 1940s but the population never rebounded as expected. (Seppo Keränen / Courtesy WWF)

2022 was an encouraging year for the arctic fox in the Nordic countries. Here’s the break down:

  • Cubs counted in Norway, Finland and Sweden in summer: 762
  • Dens in Norway: 72
  • Dens in Sweden: 91
  • Dens in Finland: 1, the first recorded since 1996

Norway also has a breeding program where the cubs are born in controlled conditions and then taken into the wild once they’re old enough and released near their traditional grounds when their population once thrived. Because the animal has a wide range, this benefits the animals in the arctic regions of all three countries, Tolvanen said.

The rodent uptick, a food source for arctic foxes, is also likely playing a roll in supporting a higher arctic fox population, he said.

“Animals like lemmings and voles have a population that rises on a 5-year cycle, not only in Finland but across the Arctic,” Tolvanen said. “We don’t know why, but that got disrupted 30 years ago, but for some reason it came back after 2007, so that’s also probably contributing as well to the population increase.”

Arctic foxes in Finland. The wide range of animal means cross-border cooperation is an important measure to help bolster the population, say experts. (Seppo Keränen / WWF)

Tolvanen said the most recent numbers remain encouraging but that global action on climate needs to continue if northern species are to thrive.

“In the long term we have to stop the global warming,” he said.  “Because if we don’t, climate change will make us lose the arctic fox habitat and the whole tundra ecosystem in Finland.”

Write to Eilís Quinn at eilis.quinn@cbc.ca 

Related stories from around the North: 

Canada: Warming climate poses challenge to Arctic animals — and those who hunt them, CBC News

Finland: What a Saami-led salmon rewilding project in Arctic Finland can teach us about Indigenous science, Eye on the Arctic

GreenlandResearchers identify polar bear population that hunts off glacier ice, Eye on the Arctic

RussiaOral histories unlock impact of climate change on nomadic life in Arctic Russia, says study, Eye on the Arctic

United States: Alaska law officer killed in muskox attack outside his house, The Associated Press

Eilís Quinn, Eye on the Arctic

Eilís Quinn is an award-winning journalist and manages Radio Canada International’s Eye on the Arctic news cooperation project. Eilís has reported from the Arctic regions of all eight circumpolar countries and has produced numerous documentary and multimedia series about climate change and the issues facing Indigenous peoples in the North.

Her investigative report "Death in the Arctic: A community grieves, a father fights for change," about the murder of Robert Adams, a 19-year-old Inuk man from Arctic Quebec, received the silver medal for “Best Investigative Article or Series” at the 2019 Canadian Online Publishing Awards. The project also received an honourable mention for excellence in reporting on trauma at the 2019 Dart Awards in New York City.

Her report “The Arctic Railway: Building a future or destroying a culture?” on the impact a multi-billion euro infrastructure project would have on Indigenous communities in Arctic Europe was a finalist at the 2019 Canadian Association of Journalists award in the online investigative category.

Her multimedia project on the health challenges in the Canadian Arctic, "Bridging the Divide," was a finalist at the 2012 Webby Awards.

Her work on climate change in the Arctic has also been featured on the TV science program Découverte, as well as Le Téléjournal, the French-Language CBC’s flagship news cast.

Eilís has worked for media organizations in Canada and the United States and as a TV host for the Discovery/BBC Worldwide series "Best in China."

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