Reindeer desert Alaskan herders

Livelihood: Villagers who have lost the animals that provide meat, hides and antlers appeal futilely for federal aid.

May 17, 2001|By Marego Athans | By Marego Athans,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NOME, ALASKA - About 3,500 reindeer take off across the snow-covered tundra in a big, tan-colored clump, running away from Larry Davis and the buzz of his snow machine. With a little prodding, they go anywhere he wants, these 4-foot-tall, 300-pound animals whose meat and antlers have provided income, jobs and a way of life for Inupiat Eskimos here for more than 100 years.

This year, though, the domesticated reindeer have been running off with their wild cousins, the caribou of the Western Arctic herd, instead of sticking around to chew lichen poking out of the snow that still blankets the northern part of the state.

And that means trouble for Davis and other herders on the rural Seward Peninsula, eight of whom have lost their herds entirely, leading them to file a futile application for federal disaster relief.

"It's one of the most amazing things you'll ever see, this huge wave of [caribou] coming across the landscape as far as you can see," said Greg Finstad, a biologist who heads a reindeer research program at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. "They roll right over the reindeer and you never see them again.

"Unfortunately it's one of those forces of nature that's fantastic to watch but there's a consequence to people."

Reindeer and caribou are members of the same species, but thousands of years of domestication have produced distinct differences in the animals. Reindeer have shorter legs, a tendency to stay put rather than migrate and hence, are fattier and have more tender meat.

The caribou, by contrast, are considered wild animals and have adapted to the Arctic by remaining on the move, traveling up to 30 miles a day between Alaska and northwestern Canada in search of prime forage.

Historic phenomenon

The rise and fall of the Western Arctic caribou herd has been a cyclical phenomenon over the past century driven by changes in weather patterns, quality of forage and the populations of other animals.

The herd's most recent expansion - from 75,000 in the mid-1970s to more than 430,000 today - has pushed the caribou westward in search of new forage to the edge of the Bering Sea, where people live in tiny villages separated by rolling tundra and mountains.

In the two previous years, the region's 14 herders received a total of $169,000 in federal emergency aid after their reindeer answered the call of the wild. The size of the reindeer herd has dropped from an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 to less than 10,000 today.

But a change in federal rules meant that when the herders applied for aid again this year, Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman denied them the required "disaster" status. In a letter to Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles, she maintained that the herders' losses were not caused by "adverse weather conditions or natural phenomena."

Knowles is now working with Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, an influential Republican, and the Department of Agriculture to see whether changes can be made in the program to make the herders eligible for aid.

"They can create disasters for pig farmers in the [lower 48] states, yet up here we're not good enough for their programs," said Tom Gray, a herder in White Mountain (population 197) and president of the Kawerak Reindeer Herders Association. His herd is down to 450 reindeer from 1,400 four years ago, causing him to shift into a fishing and big-game guiding business.

"The government will give farmers money not to farm their land, and yet you've got herders here trying to do something with their animals and the government won't give us some aid? It's a farce."

Davis is one of the lucky ones. His herd of 3,500 is the largest on the peninsula, even though he has lost half his animals. He lives in Nome, population 3,600, an old gold-rush town on the Bering Sea just 161 miles east of Russia, known internationally as home to the finish line of the Iditarod sled dog race. Most of Davis' income still comes from the reindeer meat he sells locally, though last year he started a taxi company.

"I could survive," Davis said, after a snow machine jaunt into the country to check on his herd one cold sunny day last month. "Some of those other guys, I don't know how they're going to survive."

Other villages on the peninsula, with populations of 200 to 300, offer few other jobs, either for the herders or the dozen or more young men each herder employs part time to help with corralling, tagging and butchering.

The percentage of people receiving welfare in the area was 9.6 percent in March, more than three times the statewide rate of 2.9 percent, according to figures from the state Department of Health and Social Services.

The loss of the herds also reduces the supply of reasonably priced meat. Beef, chicken or pork must be flown in at prohibitive prices.

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