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The Old--and the New--Reindeer Industry: Midnite Sun Reindeer Ranch

(Posted August 22, 2014)

When the indigenous peoples of Europe began herding reindeer five to seven thousand years ago, they mimicked the animals’ natural migration patterns and moved them between winter and summer ranges. When Sheldon Jackson imported reindeer from Siberia to Alaska in the 1890s, he also brought with him Sami reindeer herders (indigenous peoples of Europe) to teach Alaska Natives reindeer herding techniques. By 1933, the imported reindeer population grew to over 600,000.

Rev Sheldon Jackson landing first reindeer at Port Clarence, 1892Reindeer herder in Nome, early 1900s
 Rev. Sheldon Jackson brought reindeer to Alaska in 1892. Hauling reindeer meat to market in Nome, circa early 1900s.

Today, there are less than 10,000 domesticated reindeer on the Seward Peninsula. Larry Davis began his herd in 1967 with 200 reindeer, and established the Midnite Sun Reindeer Ranch. While the Davis herd grew to over 8,000 in the 1990s, the majority was swept away with wild caribou migrations and today there are coincidentally only 200 remaining. The Davis family is growing the herd with a blend of business savvy, science, tradition and ingenuity.

Bruce and Ann Davis are 2014 graduates of the University of Alaska Fairbanks High Latitude Range Management (HLRM) program. They are integrating their Alaska Native culture and tradition with scientific grazing management and a savvy business plan . The grazing management plan was required as the final project for their HLRM certificate. Their daughter Bonnie is currently enrolled in the HLRM program. The most intriguing new approach the family is taking on is teaching reindeer to follow the herders to corrals and targeted grazing and management areas. Historically, reindeer herders followed and pushed the herds around the traditional summer and winter grazing habitat.

Embracing change and re-creating a viable reindeer industry on the Seward Peninsula has been an exciting challenge for the Davis family. All family members have made lifestyle commitments to succeed. They're thrilled at the interest and support for growing a sustainable business that incorporates not just red meat production, but integrates other opportunities including tanning reindeer hides and fish skin, crafts, and ecotourism activities, all at the Midnite Sun Reindeer Ranch. Bruce and Ann say their success so far is due to constructive support from the University and Dr. Greg Finstad, the community, public and private land managers, and all interests involved – giving a refreshed meaning to the cliché “It takes a village.”

Herders training young reindeer to followYoung reindeer in shelter
Herders Bruce and Ann Davis training "Brownie" to follow them at the Midnite Sun Reindeer Ranch. Border collie Pebbles is also in training for managing the herd.Brownie in her comfortable lodging (horse trailer). The 16-week-old reindeer is the first of the Davis herd to be trained to follow the herders around the reindeer range.

Young reindeer grazing on lichen

Observing Brownie’s grazing preferences closely at the ranch, the Davis family is learning more about what these domesticated reindeer prefer to eat in their early stages of life than has ever been documented or well understood before.

Peeled willow bark used for tanning hideNative art from reindeer created by Ann Davis
Peeled willow bark is used for tanning reindeer hide.Native art crafted by herder Ann Davis: tanned salmon skin, a purse made of tanned reindeer hide with antler button, a thimble and jewelry crafted from tanned reindeer hide, wood beads and fish vertebrae.

--Story and photos by Laurie Thorpe, BLM Anchorage Field Office

Last updated: 07-22-2016