The Seward Peninsula
Since the first shipment of reindeer to Alaska in 1892, the Alaskan reindeer industry has been concentrated on the Seward Peninsula (Wikipedia). Though reindeer are found throughout Alaska , notably on Nunivak Island, the Pribilof Islands, and some of the Aleutian Islands, a full two-thirds of the estimated 18,000 (RRP 2008 estimate) reindeer in the state are found on the Seward Peninsula. The peninsula boasts prime reindeer grazing ranges, due largely to the historical absence of caribou and continuously low stocking densities of reindeer. The Alaskan reindeer industry remains concentrated on the Seward Peninsula, and this geographic area plays the central role in our research activities.
In accordance with the 1937 Reindeer Act, all Alaskan reindeer are owned by Alaska Natives (or in some cases, by Native Village governments). There are approximately 20 reindeer herders on the Seward Peninsula and neighboring islands. Each of these herders is represented in the Reindeer Herder's Association (RHA) which is part of the Natural Resources Division of Kawerak, Inc. This group provides assistance in the development of a viable reindeer industry to enhance the economic base for rural Alaska and to improve the management of the herds.
The Seward Peninsula, bounded by the Chukchi Sea to the north and the Bering Sea to the south, covers approximately 20,600 square miles. With the exception of lands owned by regional Native Corporations, most of the land on the Seward Peninsula is public, managed by various federal and state agencies. Reindeer herders are granted grazing rights to these lands by permit. These vast ranges are fenceless, usually roadless and often bisected by mountains ranges and rivers, making travel difficult in the best of conditions. At times of year when overland or river travel is restricted, contact with the herd may be impossible. Losses to predation are not uncommon, and in recent years, co-mingling with caribou has led to catastrophic losses for many herders.
Though the deer are allowed to graze freely throughout most of the year, the herders hold annual or biennial corrallings, or handlings. These occur in June & July and in January & February. Deer are moved to the corral on foot, by ATV or sometimes by helicopter. The purpose of these corrallings is to collect herd demographics, tag new fawns and other unmarked animals, harvest antlers (summer only), vaccinate for brucellosis and treat for parasites, and take fawn and/or adult body weights when possible. These gatherings are community events, with many villagers showing up to help and to watch.
The Reindeer Research Program has a long term relationship with the reindeer herders of the Seward Peninsula, St. Lawrence Island, and Stebbins & St. Michael. Staff and volunteers have been attending reindeer handlings in this area since the 1980s, assisting the herders and gathering valuable data. This work is the core of our research program.
Throughout the years, we have worked with the herders to address a variety of issues facing the reindeer industry. This includes the development of sound handling techniques and effective corral systems; the development of a record keeping system emphasizing individual animal records; the development of an effective brucellosis vaccine and an effective parasite treatment regime; implementation of range management and grazing strategies based on range surveys and seasonal animal movement; using satellite telemetry to mitigate the effects of migrating caribou; and completing basic meat quality work.
As the reindeer industry on the Seward Peninsula changes, the herders are faced with new challenges. We strive to tailor our research projects to address these challenges, receiving direct feedback from the herders regarding the effectiveness of our work.