For decades, caribou have posed a threat to reindeer herders on the Seward Peninsula — their numbers swelling, even as the reindeer population shrinks.
Now, a new front has developed in the turf war between reindeer and caribou.
An unidentified herd of animals has settled near Serpentine Hot Springs, in close proximity to several reindeer herding operations. And the animals’ presence has both wildlife managers and reindeer herders asking: Are they reindeer or caribou?
“Nobody knows if it’s a caribou herd reestablishing itself on the Seward Peninsula, or if it’s a group of reindeer that have run off and gone feral,” said Greg Finstad with the University of Alaska Fairbanks Reindeer Research program.
In order to solve the mystery, UAF’s Reindeer Research Program is teaming up with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to genetically test the animals.
The two agencies are soliciting small tissue samples from hunters who harvested game — caribou or reindeer — near Serpentine Hot Spring this summer. Those samples will then be compared with relatively “pure” reindeer samples from St. Lawrence Island, and caribou samples from the Interior, to determine whether the Serpentine herd is more closely related to caribou or reindeer.
Jim Dau is an ADF&G biologist working on the project. He said while the distinction between the two animals may seem slight — it makes a big difference to reindeer herders in the region.
“The reindeer industry has lost a tremendous number of reindeer, especially since the mid 90s. And those losses have occurred primarily when caribou that winter down there leave in the spring. They can just overwhelm a reindeer range and when they leave in the spring they take reindeer with them,” he said.
According to Dau, if the animals are caribou, they’ll likely be viewed as a new threat — especially since they appeared at an unusual time of year: Summer, rather than the typical winter migration period.
On the other hand, if the animals turn out to be reindeer, the reaction would likely be more optimistic.
“If they are feral reindeer, then a reindeer herder can go out and recover them,” said Finstad.
A definitive I.D. would also make it clear which agency is responsible for the animals — for instance, caribou are public resources within the purview of ADF&G; while reindeer are under the stewardship of private herders — and who will have to foot the bill when it comes to monitoring them.
According to Finstad, monitoring is particularly important in the case of caribou. There is very little reindeer herders can do to protect their reindeer from a group of several thousand caribou — but early warnings do help.
“If you have a group of reindeer, and you know where the caribou are, then you do have a chance and you can maybe move them out of the way,” he said.
Still, Dau with ADF&G noted that tracking costs time and money. Warning systems rely on expensive radio collars, plus transportation costs and hours spent placing those collars on the animals.
The total Western Arctic caribou herd is over 200,000 strong. Dau said it’s hard to justify placing a several collars in a relatively small area like Serpentine Hot Springs when he has such a large group to worry about — as well as other stakeholder interests in the region.
“There’s another whole aspect to this,” he said. “There are a lot of people on the Seward Peninsula who are not reindeer herders. They are absolutely delighted to have access to caribou. They want to go caribou hunting and get meat.”
But when it comes to the Serpentine herd, identification is still the first step. Dau said ADF&G is still collecting tissue samples from game harvested between May and August of this year in the Serpentine-Shishmaref-Cape Espenberg area.
Hunters interested in donating samples can bring them to the ADF&G office in Nome.
Correction: A previous version of this story stated the Western Arctic caribou herd has a population of 100,000. As of July 2013, that population numbered 235,000 caribou.