Tag Archives: Reindeer

Reindeer/Caribou (Rangifer tarandus)

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.

Mammals Introduced to Kodiak Island

Man has introduced every mammal species on Kodiak Island other than the six endemic species (Kodiak bear, red fox, river otter, short-tailed weasel, little brown bat, and tundra vole). We humans have a sketchy history of introducing mammals into ecosystems where they did not evolve. Sometimes these introductions are harmless, but often, they are not. Ecosystems are complicated, and it is impossible for us to fully understand how the plants and animals in a particular habitat have worked together to survive over thousands of years. When we introduce mammals not native to that environment, we change the balance.

It is tricky to introduce a mammal into a habitat where it did not evolve. For example, if an island has birds that nest on the ground and man introduces an egg-eating or chick-eating predator to this habitat, the predator will soon wipe out the ground-nesting birds. Of course, most introductions do not cause such an obvious impact, but the harm is often subtle and occurs slowly over time.

New Zealanders have waged an all-out war on introduced mammals in their country. New Zealand has lost 42% of its terrestrial birds since humans settled the country 700 years ago. Many of these birds were flightless and provided easy prey for introduced mammals such as rats, stoats (weasels), and dogs. New Zealanders are trying very hard to save the few species of flightless birds they have left, including kiwis and penguins, but at this point, it is an uphill battle.

While the mammal introductions to Kodiak Island have not had the disastrous consequences of those in New Zealand, introduced mammals have had an impact on the habitat here. Beavers have altered some watersheds on the island. Their dams can divert rivers and block salmon-spawning streams. In areas where beavers are native, their activity may be beneficial to other wildlife, but in an ecosystem where beavers did not originally exist, they can have a negative effect on riparian habitat. If beavers construct a dam on a small salmon stream, they can destroy the salmon-spawning grounds in that stream.DSC_53

Mountain goats on Kodiak are over-grazing their alpine habitat, and these impacts are now being studied. Sitka black-tailed deer have nearly decimated high-bush cranberries, a species that was abundant before deer were introduced to Kodiak. Other introduced mammals have also impacted the endemic flora and fauna of the island, but most mammals were introduced in the first half of the twentieth century, and those species that survived their initial introduction, are now thriving and are considered part of the complex ecosystem of the Kodiak Island Archipelago.

Over the next few weeks, I will write about several of the introduced wild mammal species on Kodiak Island. These include Sitka black-tailed deer, mountain goats, Roosevelt elk on Afognak Island, reindeer, beavers, and snowshoe hare. I will discuss how the species are doing and how their introductions have impacted the island.

I would love to hear your comments and opinions about mammal introductions. Are they good, bad, or a little of both?