Academic journal article Nomadic Peoples

Reindeer Herding in Transition: Historical and Modern Day Challenges for Alaskan Reindeer Herders

Academic journal article Nomadic Peoples

Reindeer Herding in Transition: Historical and Modern Day Challenges for Alaskan Reindeer Herders

Article excerpt


The people of northwestern Alaska have had a long relationship with local populations of Rangifer tarandus. During the last 200 years this relationship has changed from one of subsistence to overexploitation of caribou (the name for wild reindeer in North America), to commercial livestock production of semi domesticated reindeer and now may be returning to a subsistence economy based on caribou. Reindeer were introduced to Alaska in 1892 because of the disappearance of caribou, a subsistence resource. Until recently, reindeer meat and velvet antler production generated significant employment and revenue important to the economies of rural Alaskan communities. However, from 1976 to 1996 the Western Arctic Caribou Herd (WACH) increased from about 75,000 to 463,000 animals. Concurrently, winter range use of the WACH shifted westward onto traditional reindeer ranges of the Seward Peninsula for the first time in over 100 years. This event has produced socio-economic and ecological consequences for the region. Many reindeer herders have lost 75-100 percent of their herds through commingling and out-migration with wild caribou. This loss, amounting to over 17,000 reindeer, represents a potential economic value of millions of dollars. Many herders have adopted new technologies, such as satellite telemetry and intensive herding to salvage what is left of their herds. Here we discuss the role of grazing animals and patterns of human resource use in an Arctic system. We then discuss our findings on the effects and changes in management practices brought about by caribou incursion in the context of the regional economy on the Seward Peninsula.

Keywords: reindeer herders, subsistence, WACH, out-kigration, economic loss, refugia, weather, production, human dimension

The Seward Peninsula Grazing System

Humans have utilised the grazing system of the Seward Peninsula. Alaska for thousands of years, but this relationship has been in major transition during the last 200 years. Both humans and grazing animals travelled across the Bering land bridge from Asia and settled in North America. A group of these people, the lnupiaq, settled in northwestern Alaska and have for thousands of years relied upon populations of marine and terrestrial animals for their survival, including seals, whales, fish, caribou and musk oxen (Ray 1983: 152, 174-6; Kurten and Anderson 1980: 184). The hunting-gathering economies of the Inupiaq required them to interact with the landscape in a fashion where harvesting strategies tracked those of ephemerally abundant grazing animals such as caribou (Rangifer tarandus grantii) (Ray 1983: 152, 174-6; Burch 1998). However, in the last 200 years this relationship has been buffeted by changes in the climatic, ecological and political environment. The relationship has shifted from one of subsistence to market hunting of caribou, to commercial livestock production of reindeer and may now be reverting back to a caribou-based subsistence economy or into a unique 'high-tech' intensive reindeer management system. Many of these changes have been brought about by anthropogenic causes, while others have been induced by weather patterns, unpredictable animal migrations and new technologies.

There is archeological evidence demonstrating that caribou were present on the Seward Peninsula and were harvested as a significant food source by the Inupiaq for hundreds of years before the influx of Europeans (Koutsky 1981). While all Inupiaq harvested caribou if they were encountered, some settlements, sych as Buckland, Kauwerak, Koyuk, Goodhope, Iglutalik and Egavik (Fig. 1), developed cooperative caribou hunting strategies. Caribou were driven through makeshift alleyways into enclosures or lakes where they were captured with snares, harvested with spears or slaughtered by men in kayaks (Spiess 1979: 245). Residents of these settlements specialised in this subsistence pattern and recognised themselves mainly as caribou hunters as depicted in artwork that showed both bow and arrow and spears as the main tools for harvest. …

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