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Migratory Tundra Rangifer

D.E. Russell1, A. Gunn2

1Yukon College, Whitehorse, YT, Canada
2Roland Road, Salt Spring Island, BC, Canada

November 20, 2013


  • There is strong regional variation in Rangifer herd size, but many herds currently have unusually low numbers and their winter ranges in particular are smaller than they used to be.
  • There are large population differences among individual herds, and the size of individual herds has varied greatly since 1970. The largest of all herds (Taimyr, Russia) has varied between 400,000 and 1,000,000; the second largest herd (George River, Canada) has varied between 28,000 and 385,000.

Current Status of Migratory Tundra Rangifer

The current status of migratory tundra reindeer and caribou is summarized in Fig. 43. The most recent population estimates indicate that many herds remain at low numbers after severe declines (Cape Bathurst, Bluenose West, Bathurst, George River, Baffin Island) or continued to decline (Chukotka, Taimyr, Yana-Indigirka, Sundrun, Akia-Maniitsoq, Western Arctic, Teshekpuk Lake, Beverly, Ahiak, Leaf River and Southampton Island). Some herds are increasing or are stable at high numbers. These include Porcupine, Central Arctic, Bluenose East, Kangerlussuaq-Sisimiut, Lena-Olenek, Qamanirjuaq, Iceland reindeer and wild reindeer in southern Norway. While it is normal for herds to vary in size over time, it is uncertain whether the current low numbers are unusual. However, for some herds, their current ranges, especially winter ranges, are a contraction over historic ranges.

Current status of 24 major migratory tundra reindeer and caribou herds
Fig. 43. Current status of 24 major migratory tundra reindeer and caribou herds. Numbers identify names of herds that are described in the text.

Trends in Migratory Tundra Rangifer

Local and traditional knowledge has indicated that caribou go through periods of abundance and scarcity every 40-60 years. However, quantitative population estimates have only been employed since the late 1960s and early 1970s. These estimates have shown a single "cycle" of increasing and decreasing numbers for all herds over the last 40 years. The cycle is somewhat synchronous across the Arctic although there is individual herd variation. As well as some differences in the timing of the cycle, there are large differences between minimum and maximum numbers (Fig. 44). Where comparative data are available, the recent declines have varied from a 97% decline for the George River herd to a 31% decline in the Porcupine Caribou herd.

Minimum and maximum population estimates for migratory tundra Rangifer herds
Fig. 44. Minimum and maximum population estimates for migratory tundra Rangifer herds, 1970-2013.

Alaska: The Western Arctic herd (1, see Fig. 43 for the location of this and all other herds) was at a low (75,000) in the mid-1970s then increased during the 1980s and 1990s, and reached a peak of 490,000 in 2003. The herd then declined to 348,000 caribou in 2009 (Alaska Department of Fish and Game 2011a) and further declined to 325,000 by 2011. A photo-census in 2013 has yet to be counted. Both the Teshekpuk Lake (2) and Central Arctic (3) herds were recognized as distinct herds in the 1970s, and were estimated to number 4,000-5,000. Both herds increased, and continued to increase, during the 1990s. By 2008, the Teshekpuk Lake herd had reached 64,107 and the Central Arctic herd 67,000 (Parrett 2009, Lenart 2009). Since 2008, the Teshekpuk Lake herd has declined to 55,000 while the rate of increase of the Central Arctic herd slowed but continued to rise to 70,000 by 2012. Both herds were photographed in 2013 but estimates are not complete. The Porcupine herd (4) reached a peak in 1989 (178,000), declined to 123,000 by 2001, before recovering and increasing to 169,000 by 2010 (Alaska Department of Fish and Game 2011b). A photo-census in 2013 has yet to be counted.

Canada: Nine of 11 major herds have declined since peak sizes although there are uncertainties about the extent of a decline for two herds. Three herds (Cape Bathurst (5), Bluenose-West (6) and Bathurst (8) remain at low numbers, with no evidence for recovery despite sharply reduced harvesting. These three herds declined 84-93% from peak sizes in the mid-1980s and 1990s (personal communication from T. Davison 2010, CARMA 2011). There is uncertainty about the extent of a possible increase in the Bluenose-East (7) herd, but in 2010 the herd was estimated to number 122,000 (Adamczewski et al. in preparation).

A lack of monitoring has introduced uncertainty and differing interpretations into designations and population trends for some herds. The Beverly herd (10) was estimated at 294,000 in 1994. In 1996, to the north, the Ahiak Herd (9) was roughly estimated at 250,000 based on calving ground density. In the mid 2000s, agencies failed to find a concentrated calving in the traditional calving grounds of the Beverly Herd known since the 1960s. Subsequent radio-collaring revealed some caribou calving on the Beverly calving grounds, some calving in the Ahiak calving grounds, and some cows switching between calving grounds among years. One explanation is that the Ahiak herd estimated in 1996 was really the Beverly herd that had switched calving grounds in 1995, although there is no observational evidence for this. Alternatively, the Beverly herd may have declined (similar to other Northwest Territories herds), and cows switched to the neighbouring Ahiak herd to maintain the advantages of gregarious calving. In 2011, an extensive aerial survey estimated 124,000 caribou in the Beverly/Ahiak herd (Campbell et al. 2012). The estimate is either a 50% or a 75% decline from the 1994 population estimate for the Beverly Herd, depending on the explanation for the earlier herd number discrepancies.

The Qamanirjuaq (11) was estimated to have declined from 496,000 in 1994 to 345,000 in 2008 (Campbell et al. 2010), although the confidence limits were large, resulting in no statistical difference between the two survey estimates. However, since 1996, the trend in late winter calf-cow ratios reveal a persistent decline, which supports the likelihood of a decline in herd size (Campbell et al. 2010).

Caribou were introduced on Southampton Island (12) in 1967, following their earlier extirpation on the island. Ongoing studies have shown that Southampton Island caribou numbers have declined from about 30,000 caribou in 1997 to 7,800 caribou in 2011, a decline of almost 75%. Low reproductive rates and a high incidence of brucellosis (Campbell et al. unpublished) as well as a rise in the export market to other communities are contributing factors.

Baffin Island (24) is the largest Arctic island, where peak abundance projections of population size ranged between 60,000 and 180,000 for the early 1990s (Ferguson and Gauthier 1992). In 2012, in south Baffin Island, Jenkins et al. (2012) estimated 1,065-2,067 (95% confidence), while numbers on north Baffin Island were considered to be at a low in the cycle after a high in the 1990s.

Since the mid-1990s, the George River Herd (14) has declined sharply. A recent survey confirms a continuing decline of the George River migratory caribou herd population over the past few years; currently (2012), it is estimated to be about 27,600 animals, down from 385,000 in 2001 and 74,131 in 2010 (Nunatsiaq News 2013). The results of a 2011 population survey of the Leaf River caribou herd indicated it has declined to 430,000 caribou, down from 630,000 in 2001 (Nunatsiaq News 2013).

Greenland: There are 4 main populations of wild Rangifer in west Greenland (ca. 61°-68°N). Despite harvest management aimed at reducing caribou abundance, which began in 2000, the 2010 surveys indicated that the largest, the Kangerlussuaq-Sisimiut (15) remained around 98,000 animals (Cuyler et al. 2011). In contrast, the second largest, Akia-Maniitsoq (16), had decreased from an estimated 46,000 in 2001 to about 17,400 in 2010 (Poole et al. 2013). One possible cause might be the topography, which prevents hunter access in the former while permitting access in the latter (personal communication from C. Cuyler).

Iceland: Reindeer were introduced to Iceland (17) in the late 1700s (Thórisson 1984). The Icelandic reindeer population in July 2013 was estimated at approximately 6,000. With a hunting quota of 1,229 animals, the winter 2013-2014 population is expected to be around 4,800 reindeer (personal communication from S. Thórisson).

Norway: There are 23 different reindeer populations (18) in the mountain ranges of southern Norway. Population sizes vary from about 50 individuals to more than 10,000 animals in the largest herd at Hardangervidda. The total population in southern Norway typically varies between 30,000-35,000 animals, depending on harvest levels in Hardangervidda. Population numbers are managed through a tag harvest system designed to ensure stable population numbers in balance with habitat quality. Seven of the largest populations are included in a national monitoring program which surveys population age, sex structure and body condition. Habitat quality is to be included in the monitoring program in 2013 based on a combination of ground and remotely-sensed data. At present, the greatest challenges to management are loss of habitat and migration corridors to piecemeal infrastructure development and abandonment of reindeer habitat as a result of human activities and disturbance (personal communication from O. Strand).

Russia: The Taimyr Herd (19) is one of the largest in the world. Between the 1950s and 1970s, the herd increased from 110,000 to 450,000 in 1975. Commercial hunting increased and held the herd at about 600,000 animals. Then, subsidies to commercial hunters were removed, hunting declined and the herd grew rapidly by the year 2000 to 1 million animals. Currently the herd is assumed to have declined to about 700,000 animals, based on a 2009 survey projected to 2013 (Kolpashikov et al in press). East of the Taimyr, in the central Siberian region of Yakutia, there are currently three large herds of migratory tundra wild reindeer: the Lena-Olenek herd (20), the Yana-Indigirka herd (21) and the Sundrun herd (22). In 2009 the Lena-Olenek herd numbered over 95,000 reindeer, a slight increase from 90,000 estimated in 2001. There have been no surveys reported since 2009. The Yana-Indigirka population declined from 130,000 reindeer in 1987 to 34,000 in 2002. The Sundrun population declined from about 40,000 reindeer in 1993 to about 28,500 in 2002. The Sundrun herd was resurveyed in 2012 and estimated at 27,000, unchanged from the 2002 estimate (personal communication from L. Kolpashikov, Russian Academy of Science Norilsk). East of Yakutia, the Chukotka herd (23) increased following the collapse of the domestic reindeer industry. The domestic reindeer industry rapidly collapsed from 587,000 in 1971 to about 92,000 by 2001 (Klokov 2004). Subsequently, wild reindeer recovered and numbered 32,200 individuals in 1986, 120,000-130,000 in 2002, and then declined to less than 70,000 in 2009. No surveys have been reported since 2009.


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Alaska Department of Fish and Game, cited 2011b. Porcupine Caribou Herd shows growth. [Available online at].

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Parrett, L. S., 2009: Unit 26A. Teshekpuk caribou herd. Pages 271-298 in P. Harper. Editor. Caribou Management report of survey and inventory activities 1 July 2006 - 30 June 2008. Alaska Department of Fish and game. Project 3.0 Juneau, Alaska, USA.

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