The U.S. State Department introduced thirty-two Siberian reindeer to the south end of Kodiak Island in 1921 when they were granted to the native peoples to herd and raise.
Reindeer and caribou belong to the same genus and species (Rangifer tarandus). Both wild and domesticated animals in this species are referred to as reindeer in Europe and Asia, but in North America, the term reindeer is reserved for semi-domesticated animals, while their wild cousins are called caribou. There are many subspecies of both reindeer and caribou in Alaska.
Reindeer and caribou are members of the deer family, and they are the only species in the deer family in which both males and females grow antlers. The antlers of female reindeer are larger than those of female caribou. This difference, as well as many of the other differences between caribou and reindeer, are probably the result of domestication and breeding. Caribou have longer legs, while reindeer are shorter and rounder. Reindeer bulls are smaller than caribou bulls, but reindeer and caribou cows are about the same size. Reindeer have thicker fur than caribou, and they breed two to four weeks earlier than caribou.
Biologists believe reindeer were one of the first domesticated animals. A 9th-century letter from King Ottar, the king of Norway, to Alfred the Great mentions his herd of over 600 reindeer. Reindeer herding began in Alaska more than a century ago when 1300 reindeer were imported from Siberia. By the 1930s, 600,000 domestic reindeer lived in Alaska, but much of the reindeer industry in the state collapsed during the Great Depression.
After reindeer were introduced to Kodiak in 1921, The Alitak Native Reindeer Corporation was formed, and residents of the village of Ahkiok managed the herd. The herd grew throughout the 1940s and reached approximately 3000 animals by 1950. A wildfire in the early 1950s wiped out much of the reindeer range, and approximately 1200 reindeer escaped into the wild. Active management of the herd ended in 1961, and federal grazing leases expired in 1964. The State of Alaska declared the reindeer to be feral and soon established an open hunting season with no bag limit on reindeer. In 2010, the State of Alaska restricted the reindeer hunting season on Kodiak to six months and limited the annual take to one reindeer per hunter. The state also reclassified reindeer on Kodiak as “caribou.”
A reindeer has a thick coat that is brown in the summer and gray during the winter. Its chest and belly are pale, and it has a white rump and tail. A male’s antlers are larger and more complex than those of a female. A male usually sheds his antlers in the fall after the mating season, while a female keeps her antlers until spring. A reindeer has hooves that adapt to the season and environment. In the summer, its footpads are spongy, providing it with extra traction on the soft, wet tundra. In the winter, the foot pads shrink and tighten, exposing the rim of the hoof which cuts into the ice and snow and prevents the reindeer from slipping and falling.
Reindeer can run as fast as 50 mph (80 km/hr) and are excellent swimmers. They feed on herbs sedges, mosses, and lichens in the summer but mainly feed on lichens in the winter, often digging through the snow with their hooves to expose the lichens.
Reindeer breed in October, and after a gestation of 210 to 240 days, females give birth to a single calf weighing 6.6 to 26.5 lbs. (3-12 kgs). One hour after it is born, a calf can follow its mother, and at one-day old, it can run at fast speeds. Calves are weaned when they are one-month old, and reindeer reach sexual maturity when they are one to three years old.
The caribou population on Kodiak has remained stable over the past several years, and biologists estimate there are 250 to 300 caribou on the island.