Quantcast

Reindeer Numbers Have Fallen by More than Half in 2 Decades

A reindeer in Sweden. Alexandre Buisse (Nattfodd) / GNU Free Documentation License

It's a sad Christmas for the world's reindeer—the antlered Arctic grazers associated with all things Santa Claus. Their numbers have fallen by more than half in the past 20 years, and climate change is likely to blame.

The latest numbers come from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's 2018 Arctic Report Card, which listed the increasing impacts of global warming on the earth's northernmost region, as EcoWatch has already reported. But the loss of Rangifer tarandus—called caribou in North America and Greenland and reindeer in Siberia and Europe—is of note because it threatens to further throw Arctic ecosystems and cultures out of whack. Reindeer are important prey for wolves and biting flies, and a key source of food and clothing for indigenous groups.


"If you look at the [top] Northern resources, that shape the culture of northern communities and aboriginal people, what they have in common is caribou and or wild reindeer, no matter where they are in the circumpolar North," Don Russell, lead author of the Report Card's essay on reindeer, told Vox.

Locations of the major caribou or reindeer herds across the ArcticNOAA

The report found that reindeer and caribou herds have declined by 56 percent in the past two decades—that's a decrease of 2.6 million reindeer from a population of 4.7 million to a population of 2.1 million. Five herds in Alaska and Canada were particularly at risk: their populations have declined by more than 90 percent and showed no signs of rebounding. While it is normal for caribou and reindeer herds to swell and shrink, some herds are at all-time lows since record-keeping began.

"The fact that these herds are declining shouldn't be a shock—they do it all the time," Russell told Vox. "But they're at such low levels, you start to be concerned ... If we return in 10 years and [their numbers] have gone down further, that would be unprecedented."

Current vs. peak estimates for the size of reindeer/ caribou herds.NOAA

Scientists don't know exactly what is causing the decline in herd numbers, but it is likely a variety of climate-linked factors caused by warmer summers and winters.

  1. Food Shortage: Caribou subsist on lichen, which grows on the ground. But warmer temperatures encourage taller plants to grow. "Warming means other, taller vegetation is growing and the lichen are being out-competed," University of Virginia environmental science professor Howard Epstein, who helped with the research behind the report, told BBC News.
  2. Bug Off: Warmer weather also means more insects. The caribou then spend their energy hiding from them or fending them off, instead of looking for food. "It's said that a nice day for people is a lousy day for caribou," Epstein told BBC News.
  3. Rainy Days: Warmer winters, on the other hand, mean more rain falls than snow. The rain then freezes into a layer of ice that the reindeer cannot break through to reach food, BBC News explained. In one incident in 2013, ice cover in Russia meant that 61,000 reindeer starved to death, Vox reported.

These factors have been shown to impact individual herds. Warmer Julys and freezing rain from September to December were shown to explain 64 percent of the variability in adult caribou cow survival in the herd in Bathurst, Canada, the report said.

Editor's note: This post has been updated for clarity. Reindeer population figures have been added to the percentages.

Show Comments ()

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Strawberries top the Environmental Working Group's "Dirty Dozen" list of U.S. produce most contaminated with pesticides. DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS / AFP / Getty Images

Which conventionally-grown fruits and vegetables in the U.S. are most contaminated with pesticides? That's the question that the Environmental Working Group answers every year with its "Dirty Dozen" list of produce with the highest concentration of pesticides after being washed or peeled.

Read More Show Less
A drilling rig in a Wyoming natural gas field. William Campbell / Corbis via Getty Images

A U.S. federal judge temporarily blocked oil and gas drilling on 300,000 acres of federal leases in Wyoming Tuesday, arguing that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) "did not sufficiently consider climate change" when auctioning off the land, The Washington Post reported.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Mizina / iStock / Getty Images

By Ryan Raman, MS, RD

Oats are widely regarded as one of the healthiest grains you can eat, as they're packed with many important vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

Read More Show Less
JPMorgan Chase building in New York City. Ben Sutherland / CC BY 2.0

By Sharon Kelly

A report published Wednesday names the banks that have played the biggest recent role in funding fossil fuel projects, finding that since 2016, immediately following the Paris agreement's adoption, 33 global banks have poured $1.9 trillion into financing climate-changing projects worldwide.

Read More Show Less
Sriram Madhusoodanan of Corporate Accountability speaking on conflict of interest demand of the People's Demands at a defining action launching the Demands at COP24. Corporate Accountability

By Patti Lynn

2018 was a groundbreaking year in the public conversation about climate change. Last February, The New York Times reported that a record percentage of Americans now believe that climate change is caused by humans, and there was a 20 percentage point rise in "the number of Americans who say they worry 'a great deal' about climate change."

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
The head of England's Environment Agency has urged people to stop watering their lawns as a climate-induced water shortage looms. Pexels

England faces an "existential threat" if it does not change how it manages its water, the head of the country's Environment Agency warned Tuesday.

Read More Show Less
Pexels

By Jessica Corbett

A new analysis revealed Tuesday that over the past two decades heat records across the U.S. have been broken twice as often as cold ones—underscoring experts' warnings about the increasingly dangerous consequences of failing to dramatically curb planet-warming emissions.

Read More Show Less
A flock of parrots in Telegraph Hill, San Francisco. ~dgies / Flickr

By Madison Dapcevich

Ask any resident of San Francisco about the waterfront parrots, and they will surely tell you a story of red-faced conures squawking or dive-bombing between building peaks. Ask a team of researchers from the University of Georgia, however, and they will tell you of a mysterious string of neurological poisonings impacting the naturalized flock for decades.

Read More Show Less