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Rangifer tarandus tarandus
Reindeer Games on the Seward Peninsula

Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus tarandus) were first brought to the Seward Peninsula from Siberia in 1892 as part of a United States government-sponsored program to provide a reliable source of red meat and employment to Native Alaskans. Reindeer have shorter legs than caribou (Rangifer tarandus grantii); an experienced eye can detect the difference in the two breeds. Calving for reindeer occurs 15-20 days earlier than in other Rangifer breeds, including the indigenous caribou.  These reindeer are also noted for their high ratio of muscle tissue to bone and the meatiness of the carcasses making them a desirable species to cultivate.

The reindeer industry on the Seward Peninsula provides an important source of red meat, financial stability, and cultural community events. Reindeer herders on the Seward Peninsula are struggling to rebuild their herds back to an economically viable industry. BLM-Alaska, with University of Alaska Reindeer Research Program support and guidance from Kawerak Reindeer Herders Association, is helping herders manage their ranges and promoting value-added product development.  The goal is to increase herd production, develop shelf-ready products from communities where it is harvested, and get the products to market.

BLM-Alaska has some of the most unique range management issues in the country.  Our office works multiagency collaborators to support a sustainable reindeer industry and responsible range management. We work with stakeholders to issue grazing permits, monitor range conditions and conduct climate change research on the 14 million acre checkerboard landownership of the Seward Peninsula, involving 4 million BLM-managed acres. Cooperative agreements and memorandums of understanding enable stakeholders to share traditional knowledge, funding, skills, labor, and professional resources necessary to implement the program.

 Helicopter transporting grazing exc;losure Grazing exclosure
BLM Alaska, Natural Resource Conservation Service and the University of Alaska Reindeer Research Program are placing several grazing exclosures in the active reindeer ranges.

 Holding Lichen “Reindeer lichens” make up nearly 100% of the reindeer’s winter forage and about 50% of their summer diet. Rangifer hooves are used like shovels to dig through deep, crusty snow to feed on the preferred reindeer lichens.
The data collected from our research efforts will not only be valuable to assess short and long-term grazing conditions on the alpine tundra, it will also provide statistical data relative to vegetation growth rates, dynamics and diversity for climate change science.
The genetic heritage in this breed of reindeer displays a strong herding instinct and weak migratory behavior, resulting in a high degree of site-fidelity.  This has allowed reindeer herders to manage their herds without fences. The grazing ranges are defined by topographic features, watersheds, and traditional use areas.

The absence of fencing has been a double-edged sword for the herders. Much of the Seward Peninsula is also winter range for the Western Arctic Caribou Herd.  As the caribou move through their winter range on the Seward Peninsula, they “sweep” the reindeer away with them, despite reindeer site-fidelity. Fifty years ago, nearly 25,000 reindeer occupied the Seward Peninsula. A recent and significant loss of reindeer to caribou migration occurred in the mid 1990’s. Currently, approximately 8,000 reindeer occupy the unfenced grazing areas primarily on the southwestern portion of the Seward Peninsula, outside of the typical caribou winter range.

 Reindeer herd grazing
The Western Arctic Caribou Herd is now over 300,000.

Reindeer may continue to emigrate with the caribou, pending the herder’s responsiveness to move their herds to safe areas when caribou migrate through the reindeer ranges during the winter. The caribou herd migration is now tracked by GPS satellite collars, primarily for management and study purposes. Fortunately, this data is available to the reindeer herders via the internet so they can be best informed when the caribou are migrating into the reindeer areas. The United States Department of Agriculture and the University of Alaska Reindeer Research Program have also helped fund satellite tracking collars for reindeer herds which has allowed for internet tracking of both reindeer and caribou movements. 

Laurie Thorpe
Natural Resource Specialist
BLM Anchorage Field Office


Last updated: 07-22-2016