REINDEER in Alaska Thrive and Multiply
A third of a century ago there were no reindeer in Alaska. To-day more than 350,000 are grazing on the ranges and more than 100,000 additional have been utilized for a generation’s food and clothing. Such surprising production in a comparatively few years indicates something of the vastness of the infant reindeer industry in our Arctic regions.
The original stock of 1,280 reindeer, from which have come the present herds, was imported from Siberia over a period of 10 years beginning in 1892, under the direction of the Bureau of Education of the Department of the Interior. That bureau also brought Laplanders from northern Europe to instruct the Eskimos in their new mode of gaining a livelihood, but the Lapps lacked the knowledge of coping with the parasitic and other diseases that began soon to develop among the animals.
About two-thirds of the reindeer are now owned by natives and one-third by whites. The latter, realizing the need of expert assistance for the welfare and improvement of the herds, especially as evidences of deterioration became manifest, appealed to Congress for aid, with the result that in 1920 an appropriation was made for necessary investigations by the Biological Survey.
From the outset both the Eskimo and the white owners have taken the greatest interest in the reindeer investigations and are rapidly adopting the recommendations that have been made by the parasitologists, veterinarians, and grazing experts engaged on the work. To give a clear idea of the accomplishments and the work still in progress, the problems studied may be conveniently grouped under four heads, having to do with improvements (1) in the control of diseases and parasites; (2) in the condition of the herds and methods of herd management; (3) in grazing and range management; and (4) in facilities for transporting carcasses and marketing the meat.
Determinations have been made of the parasites and diseases of the reindeer and of successful methods of control in many cases. The studies are still in progress.
The requirements of herds of increasing size have been investigated and practical methods are being worked out for handling reindeer on the range, at round-ups, and at the times of counting, marking for ownership, and castration of surplus bulls. Open herding and seasonal changes of pasture are being adopted, following recommendations of the investigators, and in round-ups the use of modern corrals with wing fences, chutes, and squeezes are found far superior to the rough and crude practices formerly followed. Castration methods are now employed with exceedingly beneficial results, compared with former barbarous customs. On Nunivak Island cross breeding with the larger caribou, captured on the upper Yukon and transported there for the purpose, is under way, and the animals produced should be larger, more stocky, and superior meat producers, and have fewer accidents from broken bones.
The range itself has received a full share of study, and as a result the distribution and abundance of the lichens are being ascertained as a requirement for the conservation of lichen areas for winter use. The summer and winter grazing needs of individual herds, whether large or small, the yearly carrying capacity in different sections, and the delimiting of unit areas are being worked out. Recommendations also have been made for preventing the destructive fires that threaten seriously to curtail the grazing capacity of the ranges.
Studies are being made to determine the most satisfactory methods of slaughter and of dressing reindeer carcasses for shipment. These include the improvement of cold-storage and transportation facilities and the establishment of grazing units near waterways or along the Alaska Railroad or other arteries of travel. It is fully realized that for its highest development the reindeer industry must have facilities for marketing the meat and that these must keep pace with the increasing numbers of reindeer. Officials of the Alaska Railroad are cooperating heartily in solving this problem.
Reindeer experiment stations have been maintained by the Biological Survey from the very beginning of these investigations, and arrangements have now been made for conducting the experimental work from a station near Fairbanks, in cooperation with the Alaska College of Agriculture, with a substation possibly at Broad Pass, on the Alaska Railroad. All former investigations will be continued, including experiments in feeding grains and other rations, with a view to developing sled reindeer able to transport freight and supplies in areas where lichens are not available.