Herd loss of reindeer has been studied in this century since 2006. Two major events in Siberia have been studied, in which herds lost 20,000 and 61,000 animals seven years apart.
Foraging was interrupted by a heavy layer of thick ice after early snowfalls. Temperatures warmed suddenly and rain fell instead of snow, followed by more freezing weather. Reindeer forage by scraping snow away from ground plants such as moss and lichen, and they could not penetrate the ice with their hooves.
According to Siberian scientists, “The likely trigger was brief periods of Barents and Kara sea ice retreat during early November (2016.)” (ST, 17/11/16)
In 2016, these were “freak” events. In 2022, just six years later, they have become too common.
Indigenous reindeer herders number at least 100,000. They populate about 24 communities in the Arctic and sub-Arctic. Governments with Arctic regions have failed to respond to this immediate crisis, and without major long-term strategies to halt and reverse the climate disaster, the life on Earth is seriously threatened. (newamerica.org, 08/07/21.)
As polar sea ice disappears, and land ice masses shrink, more of the polar regions become accessible. Large ships can cross parts of the Arctic that were covered with ice two decades ago, and mining and drilling equipment can be installed in regions once covered by miles of glacier. Governments favor large companies that will produce jobs and revenue. Russia is planning to allow resource extractions companies to mine and rill on land used by traditional herders. This will reduce reindeer range, the herder’s livelihood, and the dwindling of reindeer herds.
Reindeer are an umbrella species – their presence enables the life of other organisms. Focusing on their preservation encompasses the preservation and flourishing of other species. Reindeer require a large area of tundra and woodland to survive, so the preservation of those habitats means other species sharing them can also also thrive. Large ruminants keep invasive species in check, and provide fertilization and soil tilling enabling flora to propagate. The decomposition of droppings into bodies of water moves vital nutrients downstream.
I was born in a small town in Maine called Caribou. It was named that because the first settlers found woodland caribou thriving in the boreal forest and along the grassy banks of the fast, cold rivers. The caribou disappeared within fifty years, victims of over hunting and the destruction of their forest habitat, then having to compete with sheep and cattle for forage. It is a microcosm of habitat loss and the encroachment of humans. The caribou were replaced by the prolific and indiscriminate browsers the white tail deer. This happened in the nineteenth century, so there is little documentation of the loss and subsequent environmental change.
It is heart-stirring to me, growing up with the legend of the Maine caribou.