More about Range Management
Seventeen reindeer producers on the Seward Peninsula are allowed to graze their animals on large designated ranges consisting of state and federal lands. (Click here for a map of grazing allotments.) Developing a resource conservation plan is a requirement to receiving a grazing permit on these lands. The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) provides assistance in developing resource management plans, which include management of reindeer. NRCS, with assistance from The School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (SNRAS) initiated a vegetation inventory and mapping project of the 4 million hectares of permitted rangeland on the Seward Peninsula to support reindeer range management.
The distinctive features of the Seward Peninsula grazing system are the diversity and the relatively high quality forage it supports. Vegetation of the Seward Peninsula is classified as tundra. A diversity of land features and micro-climatic zones create a mosaic of environments and vegetation types ranging from high elevation alpine tundra to tidal-influenced marshlands. Thus, the landscape is not dominated by one or two vegetation communities but by an assortment of communities made up of a multitude of graminoid, shrub, forb and lichen species. Reindeer are unique in their ability to utilize lichens as forage, primarily in winter. Lichens are very slow growing and are particularly susceptible to damage by trampling and over-grazing so they are a critical component to any range management plan.
NRCS identified and developed digitized maps of thirty-nine ecological sites found across the Seward Peninsula. An ecological site is distinguished by specific soils, topography, precipitation, temperature and other physical conditions. The combination of abiotic and biotic conditions typical of the site results in the potential to support a specific vegetation community. While some sites were in earlier stages of succession because of fire or other disturbance, the plant communities mapped were classified to their "natural potential" or "climax" state. In each ecological site, plant species composition and cover, annual plant productivity and biomass were described. These parameters are used to identify seasonal grazing areas. Click here to view the map of ecological sites.
Many producers allow their animals to range freely for most of the year but do move animals to specified areas which are identified in the grazing management plan for calving and summer and winter grazing. Recently, there has been a transition to more intensive range management because the Western Arctic Caribou Herd (WACH) has shifted its winter range onto the Seward Peninsula reindeer ranges.
Whereas the inventory and mapping of the vegetation communities are critical to development of range management plans for the Seward Peninsula, the nutritional dynamics of plant species found in the ecological sites must be known to support nutritional management decisions made by the producer. Under extensive grazing, nutrition of reindeer is not only influenced by the amount of forage but by the simultaneous concentration of critical nutrients and the ratios of fiber components.
Reindeer producers, in turn, must recognize the dynamic nature of forage chemistry to develop seasonal or rotational grazing strategies that complement the unique nutritional qualities of each designated range. The producer must develop a grazing management plan based on predicted nutritional characteristics of grazing areas. Because the environment, in particular temperature, is variable across the landscape and because temperature can have a profound effect upon plant chemistry, a producer may want to adjust his grazing rotation knowing similar areas of his range are warmer or cooler than others.
The objective of current range management studies are to evaluate the effect of species, maturity (phenology), season (date) and environment (temperature) on fiber and mineral concentrations in plants found in ecological sites used significantly by foraging reindeer on the Seward Peninsula. The seasonal nutritional profile of forage plants can be coupled with current vegetation maps in a Geographical Information System (GIS) to construct an atlas of forage quality to identify desirable ecological sites or larger grazing areas for reindeer. By using this nutritional atlas, the producer can develop a general seasonal grazing plan using species distribution and date as the predictor of forage emergence and quality. He can further refine his placement of animals depending upon the unique thermal characteristics of his range and assess his nutritional management decision-making by monitoring the phenology of forage plants. Thus, the seasonal placement of reindeer in areas where concentrations of nutrients and digestibility of forage plants are high will ensure maximum growth of the individual and overall production of the grazing system.
More about Forage Selection
Reindeer on the Seward Peninsula exhibit fast growth rates during the summer and achieve a high body mass and reproductive rates compared to other circumpolar Rangifer populations. Nitrogen (N), potassium (K) and phosphorus (P) are the minerals most often limiting growth of grazing reindeer. They have high demands for these nutrients during times when nutritional characteristics of the forage base are diverse, ever-changing and ephemeral, so being in the right place at the right time and eating the right thing is very critical for productivity. The staggered emergence of different plant species and the differentiation of quality within a single plant species produce a mosaic of forage quality across the Seward Peninsula landscape. Wide ranges in nutritive value of forage plants will promote selective feeding. Reindeer will attempt to optimize their intake of energy and nutrients by selecting foraging patches according to their nutritional characteristics.
More about Ration Development
Commercially prepared reindeer diets are currently available for use by Alaska reindeer producers. However, they may contain up to 65% imported feed ingredients and are cost prohibitive for a viable production system. A reduction of feed costs (and subsequent expansion of the economic base of the state) could be achieved through the incorporation of locally and regionally available ingredients.
Development of a fodder and cereal-grain industry in interior Alaska has provided a potential source of relatively low-cost livestock feed. Utilization of barley and hay grown by interior farmers could make supplemental feeding of Alaskan reindeer economically feasible where the high cost of feed shipped from out-of-state sources has historically been prohibitive.
In addition to the use of locally available concentrates and roughages, there is potential for the use regionally available protein sources. Typically, soybean meal is used as a protein supplement in ruminant diets but shipping costs to Alaska are high. Alaska's fishing industry creates by-products such as fish meal that could be used in formulating a reindeer diet. However, its effects on animal performance are unknown.
Various feeding trials are on-going to explore the potential of these Alaskan products in the development of an effective and cost-effective reindeer feed.