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Reindeer present unique challenges for aspiring young Alaska herders

  • Author: Suzanna Caldwell
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published December 24, 2014

In a lot of ways, Sven's a lot like a giant dog, says 17-year-old Shannyn Bird. He's really friendly but can be stubborn at times, and he's highly food-motivated.

"(Sven) is really concerned with getting his food," Bird, a home-schooled senior, said from her home in Fairbanks earlier this month. "It's what he thinks about all the time."

Sven is a domesticated reindeer, and Bird is one of a handful of young farmers who have skipped the traditional path in the 4-H Club. Instead of raising cows, pigs or steers as an annual project, Bird and other teens have decided to get an early education in raising what is perhaps a more Alaska-appropriate animal.

Young people raising reindeer isn't exactly a new idea, but in recent years more Alaska youths have taken them on as 4-H projects, part of what some see as a revitalization of reindeer herding across Alaska.

And it's not just 4-H members. On the Seward Peninsula in Western Alaska, where 15 million acres is dedicated to reindeer herding, there's hope that the next generation will take over herding, potentially creating new jobs and using reindeer to help expand local food sources.

This summer, the University of Alaska Fairbanks Reindeer Research Program hosted its first Reindeer Youth Development Camp. Eight kids between the ages of 6 and 16, from across Alaska -- including the remote communities of Stebbins and Savoonga -- got a chance to learn about what it really takes to raise reindeer, from simply putting them on a halter all the way to preparing them for slaughter.

"We're just broadening their horizons as to what the industry could be in the future," said Jennifer Robinette, a UAF Reindeer Research Program coordinator who led this summer's camp.

Robinette grew up around reindeer. Her two older siblings raised them for 4-H projects, but Robinette said those projects were just for show. The current 4-H projects are focused on raising the reindeer for market and involve a stricter set of rules. Generally, that also means more work for the teenagers.

But it's a start toward building interest in reindeer as a domesticated herd animal.

As for Sven's obsession with his food, Bird said her mentor, George Aguiar of the Reindeer Research Program, had never seen a fat reindeer. But Sven -- named after the reindeer in the popular Disney animated musical "Frozen" -- might be one.

A stricter standard

In some ways, a reindeer is a perfect fit for an Alaska teen. Reindeer are well-suited to Alaska. They naturally forage off of flora easily available, including willows and other greens. In winter they don't need water -- they just eat snow -- and their thick coats provide protection from the elements, meaning they don't need a well-insulated barn to keep warm.

Still, they're not without challenges. While reindeer are domesticated cousins of caribou, they're still stubborn. Bird said she spent a long time getting Sven used to her by training him to be comfortable with people. Now, she's able to walk with him on a harness.

Stubbornness is a trait that Taylor Armstrong also encountered in raising her own reindeer, Merlin. Armstrong, now a freshman at UAF who took on Merlin in her final year of eligibility for 4-H, said she took time to bond with because of his wild instincts. She said she spent well over 100 hours just sitting in the pen with him, letting him get used to her.

Now, over a year later, the 18-year-old Armstrong is glad she did it.

"It's the coolest project I've ever done," she said from Fairbanks this month.

Despite the challenges, Armstrong and Merlin bonded. She said his personality was more distinct than other large animals she'd raised. He sometimes got annoyed when she tried to take selfies with him.

"You could see in the picture that he was being almost sassy about it, like he didn't want to take a picture," she said.

Armstrong said she intended to keep Merlin for pulling a sleigh or to be used in tourism. But this fall, Merlin developed an intestinal infection and died in September.

Armstrong is studying in the pre-veterinary program at UAF and hopes to go into large-animal medicine. She's working with a local church group in hopes of getting another reindeer that the church can use in tourism operations in North Pole.

Nikiski High School senior Jenna Hansen is using her reindeer for tourism too, though in a slightly different venue. Hansen uses her reindeer, 3-year-old Crash and 2-year-old Comet, for educational and fundraising purposes. She brings them to schools to teach kids about reindeer husbandry and sets up holiday photos with them each year that raise money for homeless youths on the Kenai Peninsula. Last year, she and her reindeer raised $700.

Despite some of the positives of raising reindeer, she acknowledged that they aren't "starter" animals. Hansen raised horses and other large animals before getting Crash two years ago.

"They can be very dangerous. As long as you have the background in training in larger animals, you can do well," she said.

Off-road reindeer

For the Davis family in Nome, far off Alaska's road system, raising reindeer is nothing new. Bruce Davis helped his father, Larry, raise a herd of about 10,000 in the 1980s.

But then things changed. The Western Arctic Caribou Herd moved into the region. As they migrated, they absorbed the domesticated reindeer into their herd. Rose Fosdick, program director for the Kawerak Inc. Reindeer Herders Association, said that migration took about half of herders' reindeer with them.

With the herds also came predators like bears and wolves, which have lingered in the region and made the domesticated reindeer easy prey.

Now the Davis herd is tiny, about 250 reindeer that wander the tundra outside Nome, and Ann and Bruce Davis are looking to revitalize the herd.

They took a livestock management course through UAF that taught them how to herd the reindeer. Bruce Davis said the class utilizes decades of research from the reindeer program, including history from his father as well as other herders in the region and across the Arctic.

Now he's hoping to pass that knowledge along to his daughter, Bonnie Davis, and 10-year-old granddaughter, Imogene Davis. And it's beginning with a reindeer fawn named Brownie.

Imogene has been learning how to raise the reindeer, which is now 2 years old. The Davises hope raising Brownie will breathe new life into the herd. They expect they'll be able to use Brownie to lead the rest of their reindeer, creating a more efficient management system for the herd that would mean less loss.

Until then, Imogene is part of the 4-H Future Reindeer Herders of Alaska. She spoke at the annual Reindeer Herders Conference in Nome in October. Fosdick of the Reindeer Herders Association said as part of the group's plan to revitalize reindeer on the Seward Peninsula, it has publicly supported the efforts of local youths to get involved.

"(Reindeer herding) brings you back to something that is tangible," said Bonnie Davis, who lives in Anchorage but commutes to be with her parents near Nome. "You see progress right away."

Aguiar of the UAF Reindeer Program said he would be surprised if all the youths involved with the reindeer programs actually went into reindeer husbandry, but the skills they're learning are universal for whatever they decide to do, he said.

"Alaska is never going to be the world's No. 1 cattle producer, but they could be the No. 1 reindeer producer," he said.

The programs could also help build a stronger reindeer herd that Imogene and Bonnie might be able to take over someday.

"I think it's pretty fun to raise reindeer," said Imogene Davis. "More people should do it."

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