Caribou and Reindeer (Rangifer)
D. Russell1 and A. Gunn2
1Yukon College, Box 10038 Whitehorse YT, Canada Y1A 7A1
2368 Roland Road, Salt Spring Island, BC, Canada V8K 1V1
November 10, 2012
- The total, pan-Arctic population of Arctic reindeer and caribou (Rangifer) may have ceased to decline, thus ending a ~40-year cycle.
- There is strong regional variation in Rangifer populations; some are declining, but most are either increasing or stable.
Geographic Variation of Rangifer Population Trends
The most recent population estimates for migratory tundra reindeer and caribou herds indicate that while some herds are either increasing or stable at high numbers (Porcupine, Central Arctic, Teshekpuk Lake, Bluenose East, Kangerlussuaq-Sisimiut), other herds are stable but at low numbers (Cape Bathurst, Bluenose West, Bathurst, Leaf River, Lena-Olenyk) and some herds are starting or continuing to decline (Taimyr, Akia-Maniitsoq, Western Arctic). The current status of the 23 herds, updated by the CircumArctic Monitoring and Assessment (CARMA) Network, is illustrated in Fig. 4.8.
Temporal Variation in Migratory Tundra Rangifer
Local and traditional knowledge has indicated that caribou go through periods of abundance and scarcity every 40-60 years. However, relatively objective population estimates have only been employed since the late 1960s and early 1970s. These estimates have shown one single "cycle" over the last 40 years. This cycle is "somewhat" synchronous around the Arctic, although there is a lot of individual herd variation (Figs. 4.9 and 4.10).
In the last 20-30 years, methods of counting have become more standardized, which improves the statistical reliability of trend information. Herd size is estimated from photographs taken either when the cows aggregate on the calving ground, or during summer when the insect harassment drives the animals into aggregations. In Russia, the methods include photography of summer aggregations, but did not include the use of radio- or satellite-collared individuals to ensure that all aggregations are found. Since 1970, for the 23 circum-Arctic herds whose size is tracked through aerial surveys, the numbers of caribou and wild reindeer have declined from a recorded peak of about 5.5 million to 2.7 million (CARMA, 2011).
In the last 3 years, population estimates indicate that we may now be seeing a halt to the declines, and recovery of some herds, particularly in western Canada (Fig. 4.8). These changes are likely the results of co-management boards taking strong steps to reduce harvest levels. Increased development, more efficient harvesting methods and regional climate trends, however, are still a concern that may affect speed, timing and magnitude of the recovery (Gunn et al., 2010). At the same time, herds that have not declined since estimates began have started to decline.
In Alaska, the Western Arctic herd (No. 1 in Fig. 4.8) 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 325,000 caribou in 2011 (Dau, personal communication 2012). Both the Teshekpuk Lake (2) and Central Arctic (3) herds were recognized as distinct herds in the 1970s, and were estimated to number 4000-5000. 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). 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).
In Canada, there is considerable variation in the timing of increases and decreases, and changes in survey techniques likely contributed to differences in estimated herd size. All Canadian herds have declined since peak sizes, although surveys and estimates after 1994 limited in number for the Ahiak (9) and Beverly herds (10). The Beverly herd likely peaked at 276,000 in 1994, but then numbers of breeding cows declined sharply and essentially had disappeared from the traditional calving grounds by 2011. There are two explanations for this: (1) cows moved to the coastal calving range of the unmonitored Ahiak herd in the mid 1990s (Nagy et al., 2011, 2012), or (2) Beverly numbers declined severely after 1994 and the remaining few cows migrated with Ahiak cows to the higher calving densities to maintain the advantages of gregarious calving (Gunn et al., 2012a, 2012b).
The Qamanirjuaq (11) was estimated to have decreased from 496,000 in 1994 to 345,000 in 2008 (Campbell et al. 2011). However, these estimates were not significantly different and, because there were 14 years between counts, any intervening trends could not be determined. The Cape Bathurst (5) and Bluenose-West (6) herds stabilized between 2006 and 2009 after sharp declines (Davison, personal communication 2010; CARMA, 2011). The 2010 census of the Bluenose-East (7) showed that the herd increased from 66,700 in 2006 to 98,600 in 2010 (Government of NWT, 2010). Caribou were re-introduced on Southampton Island (12) in 1967, following the extirpation of caribou on the island. The initial re-introduction increased to a peak of 30,381 animals in 1997. Brucellosis has been implicated in the subsequent decline of the herd to a 2009 estimate of 13,953 (Campbell et al., in press). Strict harvest limits were imposed after 2011 estimates indicated that the herd numbered 7,800 animals (Nunatsiaq News, 2012).
The George River herd (14) increased from about 5000 animals in the 1950s to 750,000 in the mid-1990s (Couturier et al. 2004). The herd then declined to about 385,000 individuals in 2001, and declined further to 74,131 based on the 2010 post-calving photo-census (Ressources naturelles et Faune, 2010). Current estimates indicate the herd is likely about 26,000 animals (Brodeur, personal communication 2012). The Leaf River Herd also declined from a peak of 680,000 to current estimates of 420,000, which is considered stable over the last few years (Brodeur, personal communication 2012).
There are two major herds in Greenland. Recent surveys indicate that the largest herd, the Kangerlussuaq-Sisimiut (15) has increased from under 60,000 in 2001 to 98,000 in 2010. In contrast, the smaller Akia-Maniitsoq (16) herd declined from 46,000 in 2001 to 31,000 in 2010 (Cuyler, 2007; CARMA, 2011).
Reindeer were introduced to Iceland (17) in the late 1700s (Thórisson, 1984). In the absence of predators and with active harvesting the number was estimated at approximately 6,500 animals in fall 2009 (Thorarinsdottir, personal communication 2010; CARMA, 2011).
Wild mountain reindeer in Norway (18) consist of 23 separate herds that, in 2004, numbered from 22,000 to 29,000 animals. Herds are largely regulated by hunting and the degree of infrastructure, range fragmentation and forage conditions largely determine individual herd status (Lund, 2004).
In 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. Commercial hunting increased and held the herd at about 625,000 animals in 1990. Then, subsidies to commercial hunters were removed in 1991, hunting declined and the herd grew rapidly to 1 million animals by 2000. Currently, the herd is assumed to be declining, although the population has not been estimated since 2000 (Klovov, 2004; Kolpashikov et al., in press). East of the Taimyr, in the central Siberian region of Yakutia, there are three large herds of migratory tundra wild reindeer. In 2009, the Lena-Olenek herd (20) numbered over 95,000 reindeer, a slight increase from 90,000 estimated in 2001. The Yana-Indigirka (21) population declined from 130,000 reindeer in 1987 to 34,000 by 2002. The Sundrun (22) population declined from about 40,000 reindeer in 1993 to about 28,500 by 2002. East of Yakutia, the Chukotka herd (23) increased following the collapse of the domestic reindeer industry.
The domestic reindeer industry in Russia collapsed rapidly from 587,000 in 1971 to about 92,000 by 2001 (Klokov, 2004). Consequently, the wild reindeer recovered and numbered 32,200 individuals by 1986, 120,000-130,000 in 2002, then declined to less than 70,000 by 2009. Typically, when wild reindeer migrate through the range of domestic reindeer, the domestic animals become part of the wild herd, thus augmenting the perceived number of wild reindeer. When reindeer husbandry was no longer economical, herders were less likely to protect their domestic stock from migrating wild reindeer. Hence the increase in wild herd size as the domestic reindeer industry collapsed.
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