View Full Version : Week 29 - Reindeer/Caribou

December 24th, 2007, 02:30 PM


Although they are called by different names in North America, wild caribou and domestic reindeer are considered to be a single species throughout the world.
Caribou are rather large members of the deer family. Their broad, concave hoofs spread to aid walking on soft ground and are good for digging in snow. Both sexes grow antlers that in males serve as sexual ornaments and weapons for fighting rivals during the breeding season. Alaskan caribou are clove-brown with a white neck and rump. Chukotkan reindeer, as a result of domestication, have varied pelt combinations of brown, grey, black and white in the same herd.

Evolution and Range

Caribou live in tundra and boreal forest regions of both Eurasia and North America, on Greenland and on large northern islands. Within Beringia, they occupy eastern Yakutia, the Anadyr highlands and much of western Alaska, but are absent on most of the Chukotka and Seward peninsulas, where they have been supplanted by reindeer.
During the great Ice Age caribou were members of the remarkable array of large mammals inhabiting Beringia. Many Ice Age animals are extinct; others live only in more southerly regions. Caribou have persisted, but like other surviving ungulates (bison, elk, muskox) they are much smaller than during the last glacial period.

Caribou Life History, Status

Caribou are social animals living in herds; herds are defined by their use of the same general area as calving grounds. In spring pregnant cows lead the migration to the calving grounds, where each will give birth to a single calf. Newborns can walk within an hour and in a few days they can outrun a person. Spring finds the herd feeding on succulent new vegetation; grasses, sedges, flowering plants, horsetails and the leaves of willows. In mid-summer the harassment of mosquitoes and flies can drive the animals to windy coastal areas or old snow patches for relief. In late August or early September the herd begins to drift toward its winter range. Mating occurs enroute during late September and October.

Caribou are well adapted to winter conditions. To cope with scarcities and hardships they reduce food intake and lower their metabolic rate. Lichens (including "reindeer moss") are their most important winter food. Caribou shift winter ranges from year to year, which minimizes overgrazing. Since heavy snow or ice conditions can make it difficult to dig down to food, they often winter in forested areas where snow cover may be less and lichens growing on trees can be eaten.

The great migrations of wild herds in groups of thousands are an inspiring sight. But much of their movement is simply the gradual drifting of a widely dispersed herd. The most concentrated and directed movement occurs in the spring migration of cows and one-year olds to the calving grounds, and the migration of both sexes to wintering grounds. Sometimes caribou shift to new areas or routes, causing privation for hunting peoples who depended on their presence.

Caribou that winter on the eastern Seward Peninsula are part of the Western Arctic herd. In spring this herd migrates to calving grounds in the northern foothills of the Brooks Range. In fall they return south in spectacular migrations. This herd has experienced drastic fluctuations. During a low point in the late 1800's caribou disappeared from the Seward Peninsula. The herd then increased to about 240,000 in 1970, declined again to 75,000, then increased to 340,000 in 1988. It is now the largest in Alaska and part of the herd, as many as 50,000, can again be found on the eastern Seward Peninsula in winter.
In the Anadyr highlands west of the Chukotsk Peninsula are small bands of caribou, the remains of much larger herds described by 17th century Russians. In those times Native hunters intensively pursued caribou as they swam across the Anadyr and other rivers during annual migrations. Wild populations declined as hunting, made more efficient with firearms, intensified during the 18th century.


In Eurasia people long ago began to tame wild caribou. Some anthropological studies suggest that this occurred in the southern Altai mountain region about 5,000 years ago. All domesticated reindeer may have derived from those stocks, for modern attempts to domesticate animals from wild caribou populations have not succeeded. It is speculated that initially hunters learned that tamed deer on a leash could help them sneak closer to wild herds. Later tame animals were used to pull sleds, and in some cultures they were saddled and ridden. Eventually people kept herds as a dependable source of food, hides and transport.

Today, from the Sami (or "Lapps") in Scandinavia, all across northern Eurasia to the Bering Strait, there are Native peoples who base their economies upon the herding of reindeer. Modern uses include the former ones, plus commercial sales of meat and some hides. Recently, the sale of antlers to the Orient has become important. In the Russian Republic today, reindeer number about 2,250,000.
Different reindeer varieties have been developed in Asia to suit local conditions and human needs, including transportation. Chukchis have a breed that appears to be the product of longer domestication than most. Excellent for meat production, they are not so good for pulling sleds. The Chukchis may have begun keeping larger herds for commercial meat and hide production in response to the 17th century arrival of Russians. Under the Soviet system Chukotkan herders were organized into brigades, each responsible for 500 to 2,000 reindeer. Larger numbers of reindeer were kept on the Chukotsk Peninsula and the long migrations to the west discontinued. There are no forests on the peninsula and winter can be particularly difficult; nearly half the reindeer died in the winter of 1984.

Life in a reindeer camp remains traditional in many ways, based on the mutual dependence of reindeer and people. Reindeer hides supply beautiful, light and warm clothes enabling people to work in the severe cold. Winter hides, one of the best available natural insulators, furnish tents, provide bedding and, sewn together with sinew, become the winter coverings of the large round tents called yarangas.

Despite the long history of cultural contacts and movements across Beringia, reindeer Husbandry was evidently not transmitted to North America until Chukchi and Sami herders and Chukotkan reindeer were brought to Alaska in the late 19th century to teach herding to Eskimos. The Seward Peninsula is home to most of Alaska's reindeer, about 17,000 in herds owned by local Eskimos and Native corporations. Herds range throughout the peninsula, including within the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve, where the continuance of herding is allowed by law.

Ecological Concerns

Because of their sheer numbers, caribou and reindeer can have considerable effects on their habitat. For instance, during the 1960's the number of reindeer on the Chukotsk Peninsula rose to 100,000, exceeding the capacity of the winter range. The essential lichens were seriously overgrazed and have not fully recovered. The present population is about 45,000.

Domesticated herds have displaced Chukotkan caribou. The wild animals have difficulty subsisting in areas already grazed by reindeer. In addition, herders tend to shoot caribou present near their herds, since caribou compete with reindeer for forage and make herding difficult. Still, there are signs of recent increases in the caribou population of western Chukotka.

Other effects of reindeer herding are not as obvious. Herds can threaten ground-nesting birds by trampling nests and eggs, and even eating eggs. Potential predators like wolves are often killed to protect the herds. Mechanized assistance to herding has its price as well. Vezdehodi, tank-like tracked vehicles used to supply reindeer camps in Chukotka, destroy tundra and leave many long-term scars on the land when used on bare tundra in summer.

Other human activities, including human-caused tundra fires, can degrade reindeer/caribou habitat. To the west of the Chukotsk Peninsula vast land areas have been destroyed by large-scale placer mining for gold. The areas are so large that reindeer may be unable to cross them. Until now the peninsula has been spared but one mine has begun operating in its southwest part. Mining and oil development activities also threaten to disrupt and fragment the habitat of Alaska's caribou.

Another threat to the tundra, particularly to lichens on which caribou and reindeer depend, comes from atmospheric pollution generated locally and in distant regions.


In Alaska hunters harvest more caribou than any other big game species. Although in recent years over-harvest does not seem to be a major threat, management of the hunt is difficult because of a poor understanding of the great natural fluctuation of caribou populations and fragmentation of management authority among different governmental agencies. Allocations are sometimes controversial, particularly because caribou remain the basis of subsistence in much of the rural North.

Even more serious and controversial is management of caribou range. The future of caribou is central to the question of opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge near the northeastern fringe of Beringia to oil development, an issue receiving national attention
The future of the reindeer industry is an important question in Beringia, especially on the Chukotkan side, where it is a mainstay of subsistence and economic life. Some believe that it has reached unsustainable proportions and that it impacts other values of the region too seriously. Recent steps to restrict the use of vendehodi and to reevaluate herd sizes reflect that concern.