ANCHORAGE, ALASKA Reindeer farmers have seen thousands of their animals run off with wild caribou herds, prompting state officials to seek federal disaster money.
The Western Arctic caribou herd, which has grown to more than 400,000 animals, is spreading across the Seward Peninsula, encroaching on herders' lands where reindeer graze freely. Herders say once the reindeer mix with their wild cousins, they don't come back.
wildlife biologist Greg Finstad
About 3,000 reindeer may have joined the caribou herd during the past decade, officials said.
That may leave as few as 9,000 reindeer on the peninsula, compared with nearly 25,000 a decade ago, said wildlife biologist Greg Finstad, who manages the reindeer research program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
"We can't lose very many more," Finstad told the Anchorage Daily News. "We're not talking about losing a viable industry. We're just trying to salvage seed stock."
"It's a very difficult time," said Rose Fosdick, program director for a group that represents herders on the peninsula. The peninsula stretches into the Bering Strait on Alaska's western coast.
Six of the association's 20 members have lost their entire herds during the past decade, and another two may not have enough animals left to stay in business, Fosdick said. Reindeer herders sell the meat as well as the antlers, which some cultures use to make aphrodisiacs and tonics.
Herders on the Seward Peninsula have received about $300,000 during the past two years to help cover the loss of their reindeer and grazing land.
But a change in federal law means they need a disaster declaration before they can get more.
The herders will likely get about $100,000 this year if the declaration is approved, federal agriculture officials said.
The Western Arctic caribou herd had been growing for years from a low of around 75,000 in 1976 to more than 400,000 by 1990, according to state statistics.
During the same period, the caribou began ranging westward across the peninsula, said John Coady of the state Department of Fish and Game.
The migration brought them into contact with the reindeer.
The herders have struggled to keep their stock from mixing with the wild caribou, but that has proven difficult, Fosdick said.
Three times a week and sometimes more, the herders get updates on caribou movement, provided from animals fitted with satellite and radio collars.
Even then, it can be hard to get their animals out of the herd's way in time.
Once the reindeer have taken up with the caribou there's no way to get them back, Fosdick said.
They look nearly identical and become wilder once they've joined the caribou.