Santa may have his team of loyal reindeer at the ready to jettison him around the globe on Christmas Eve, but land-bound humans in Alaska tend to more than just one herd of the antlered beasts, and they do so year-round. Alaska is home to both reindeer and caribou, similar-looking animals with vastly different lifestyles.
Reindeer have a long and storied history as capable draft animals. As Alaska entered the 20th century they were an imported food source, and doubled as a way to haul gear for gold miners and deliver mail. Today, they are raised as a source of meat – a domesticated animal ultimately bound for the dinner table. Caribou are wild, sought-after as a food source by hunters. Reindeer tend to hunker down in one location, while caribou have been known to migrate hundreds of miles. Each has evolved to suit their respective travel inclinations. Reindeer are stockier, have squarer heads, larger antlers, shorter legs. Where caribou are the taller, more elegant marathoners of the state, reindeer are aptly described as "more of a couch potato," according to Greg Finstad, program manager for the Reindeer Research Program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Santa has long relied on the smaller of these two deer to help him deliver Christmas magic across the globe, but some suspect young caribou should actually be credited with the annual feat. In Alaska's northern region, caribou are abundant: the Western Arctic Caribou herd is thought to be about 325,000 animals strong. Compared to the some 8,000 to 10,000 reindeer found in Palmer, Fairbanks, across the Seward Peninsula, and on St. Lawrence Island and Nunavak Island, the numbers are impressive.
But the Western Arctic Caribou Herd in Alaska is actually downsizing. In 2003, the herd was estimated to number 490,000 animals, its all-time peak. Since then, herd size has fallen 4 percent to 6 percent each year.
Biologists estimate cow caribou and their young are not surviving as well as they have in the past. Despite this, the herd itself appears healthy overall.
"Caribou populations fluctuate naturally in response to a variety of factors," Jim Dau, a biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game who has studied the Western Arctic Caribou Herd for a quarter century, explained in a 2012 department article. "Despite this decline in numbers, health assessments conducted by the department and reports from hunters indicate that the body condition of caribou from this herd generally remains good. All in all, while herd size has declined, it's still very large and its sustainability is not in question."
Still, the diminished herd size is cause for concern, Dau recently told Smithsonian.com. The herd, which can span 143,000 square miles, affects the entire food chain, from bacteria to the largest of predators, according to the article. Dau theorized a weather change seen during the last six-to-eight years may be the cuplrit behind the declining numbers: rain. And not just rain, but rain on snow, which can seal the lichens the caribou eat in ice, making the food inaccessible; or, if the caribou do get to the food, by the time they excavate it they've spent more energy getting to in than they get out of it.
Dau also told the Smithsonian he's seen an increase in the number of wolves in this region of Alaska, and has heard from villagers that brown bear sightings are also on the rise. Both animals prey on the Western Arctic Caribou Herd, according to Dau.
Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com