Finland’s whitetail deer have Iron Range roots

Scene from a Helsinki bar. (PHOTO: Agnessz, Flickr CC)

Finnish-Americans gave Northern Minnesota saunas, labor activism and light switches that are on the outside of the room for some reason. But few here know they also gave the “old country” more whitetail deer than they can shoot.

Right now about 100,000 whitetail deer roam the Finnish countryside. In 1934, that number was a cold, round zero. Whitetail deer are native to North America. Elk, roe deer and reindeer lived in Finland, but those animals were near extinction due to to human expansion into rural areas and extreme poverty.

It was around that time that some Finns in America talked to folks back home. Here, Finns survived the Great Depression feasting on venison from Minnesota’s bountiful whitetail deer herds. A Finnish businessman sought to host some of these deer from America on his land at Laukko Manor. That’s located in the municipality of Vesilahti in the southern region of Pirkanmaa.

American Finns captured eight deer near the Mesabi Iron Range city of Virginia, Minnesota, shipping them to Europe. Only five survived the trip, including just one buck. Nevertheless, the deer thrived at an enclosed game preserve. So well that they eventually escaped the preserve and continued thriving in the Finnish wilderness.

Here’s what the Finnish TV news program Yle Uutiset reports:

The fact that the herd was expanding under just one buck concerned many wildlife experts, however. They planned a new shipment of deer from Minnesota in 1948. This time the deer arrived in Finland by air. Media representatives on both sides of the ocean followed the mission carefully. In 1949, two of the males in the new shipment of deer died, leaving just three females and one male, which were then released into the wild.

Some sources say the deer that were gifted in 1948 died already the following winter. If this is true, this would mean that the entire population of white-tailed deer that roams Finnish forests today descended from those first five individuals brought to the country in 1934.

“It is entirely possible, but it can’t be ruled out that some of the genes would have come from the second transplanted group,” says Jon Brommer, associate professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Turku.

A study of the population’s genes in 2012 found that the diversity in Finland’s white-tailed deer population was surprisingly normal. The researchers said that the fact that the herd multiplied so quickly in fact saved the population from any negative effects of in-breeding.

Within the last decade, the white-tailed deer population in Finland has doubled, spreading to almost every corner of the southern part of the country.

The Finnish government estimates that 100,000 whitetail deer live in Finland now, causing some of the same car accidents and garden frustrations that they do here in Northern Minnesota. But the hunting is good. In fact, the Finnish government is expanding hunting permits by 50 percent this year. Finnish wildlife officials granted more than 36,000 Finnish deer hunting permits last year.

That’s not nearly as many as the more than 161,000 deer harvested in Minnesota last year. But consider that Finland only has 80 years of deer to speak of. They all descended from a crate-full sent by Finnish-American Iron Rangers. I suppose that’s not bad.

Finland isn’t the only part of Europe where immigrants sent back whitetail deer. The same thing happened in the Czech Republic even earlier. However the population there is much smaller and more stable.

Immigration to Northern Minnesota certainly shaped our present times. But we might forget that it shaped the lands left behind, too. In this case, literally leaving hoof prints across Finland.

 


Comments

  1. Amy Dettmer says:

    Thanks for this post, Aaron! My grandfather, Eino Saranen, and Lester Ketola brought the first group of deer to Finland in 1934. The story with pictures is in the book “Bobbi: Father of the White-Tailed Deer” by Mary Sharp and Matt Niemi. The book was self published in 1979. There are a copies available at libraries in the Arrowhead Library System.

    • That’s amazing, Amy! What a small world. I should have just asked you about it when I was at the library the other day! Thanks for sharing the book title. I’ll have to take a look when I’m next in town.

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