The Arctic fox is one of the most seriously endangered mammals in Norway. A twenty-year decline in the mainland population appears to have been reversed as a result of the success of a captive breeding programme.
The Arctic fox is critically endangered
Despite strict protection of the Arctic fox in Norway since 1930, the population has never recovered to a viable level. The population is small and severely fragmented in both Norway and Sweden, and the Arctic fox is classified as critically endangered in the revised Norwegian Red List for Species (2015).
Since 2005, several measures have been implemented to increase the population of the Arctic fox, and since 2010, the population of adult individuals has increased significantly. Figures from the monitoring in 2017 show a minimum of 135 individuals, an increase from previous years.
In the period 2011–2017, 171 Arctic foxes were registered in Norway. The increase in the number of litters during this period is mainly due to the release of foxes through a breeding programme, as well as extra feeding and culling of red foxes.
Through the breeding programme Arctic foxes have been released in different mountain areas including Saltfjellet/Junkeren, Dovrefjell, Sylane, Finse and the southern part of Hardangervidda. In some cases, this has resulted in the migration of individuals to Sweden.
In 2014, the Arctic fox in Norway had a remarkably successful breeding season. A total of 50 litters was recorded and at least 321 cubs were born. Also 2015 was a good year for the Arctic fox. A total of 40 litters and a minimum of 204 cubs were documented.
In 2016, there was a decrease in the number; 16 litters and at least 60 cubs were recorded. The reason was a strong decline in the populations of lemmings and other small rodents, which are important food supplies for the Arctic fox.
In 2017, 40 litters and a minimum of 135 individuals were recorded.
Abundance of lemmings – large litters of Arctic fox
Arctic foxes feed primarily on lemmings, but also eat hares, birds and plant material and scavenge reindeer carcasses. When lemmings are abundant, the Arctic fox may have large litters of up to 16 cubs. A more normal litter size, when food supplies are adequate, is three to six cubs. Conditions are harsh in the Norwegain mountains, and at best only about one in three cubs is likely to be alive after the first winter. Normally survival rates are much lower.
Hunting and competition from the red fox
Arctic foxes in mainland Norway rely mainly on lemmings, and will not breed if food supplies are inadequate. But there are several reasons why the Arctic fox is struggling to survive. Hunting and trapping was responsible for the initial population decline in the early 1900s. Competition from the red fox and fragmentation of the Arctic fox population are believed to be important factors today.
Captive breeding, monitoring and protection
Norway has undertaken to ensure that the species survives in several international agreements. Captive breeding and release of Arctic foxes is an important way of preventing their extinction on the mainland.
An action plan for the Arctic fox was drawn up in 2003, and the captive breeding programme started in 2005. The breeding programme has developed methods for the captive breeding of the Arctic fox and the release of cubs into the wild. The first wild-born litters produced by released foxes were recorded in 2010. Annual monitoring of the Arctic fox show that the release of foxes has contributed to the re-establishment of the species in Dovrefjell.
In 2015 the Arctic fox became a priority species, which means, that both the species and its dens are protected against disturbances and destruction.
Norway and Sweden have increased their cooperation on management and research to save the Arctic fox in Scandinavia. In 2017, a joint action plan for the Arctic fox in Norway and Sweden was finalized. It aims to coordinate measures and monitoring to achieve a robust Arctic fox population in Scandinavia.
A separate grant scheme for active management and other measures related to priority species that landowners, licensees, municipalities and organisations can apply for, has also been established. This is managed by the county governors.