Range Resources

The lichen-rich tundra of the Northwest Region provides considerable forage for reindeer, caribou, and muskox. Most areas below 4,000 feet (1,220 m) in elevation, including lightly stocked forest stands, provide deer forage while muskox graze mainly along the coast in the vicinity of Point Hope, Cape Prince of Wales, and Moses Point.

Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus), a domesticated relative of the caribou, are not indigenous to Alaska. As a result of drastic reduction of the arctic caribou in the late nineteenth century, they were introduced to the Seward Peninsula by Sheldon Jackson in an effort to supplement the dwindling food supply of Natives in 1892 (Figure 155). By the early 1930s reindeer had increased to about 640,000 animals. Due to overgrazing, a reduction in demand for the meat with the decline of mining activity, lichen-destroying fires related to mining, and other less apparent reasons, their numbers declined drastically to an estimated 25,000 by 1948 (Rouse, Mountjoy, and Belcher 1948; Hanson 1952).

Today, nearly all herds in the Northwest Region are located on or near the Seward Peninsula on a total of 18 active grazing leases of 16.9 million acres. According to the Bureau of Land Management, between 9,000 and 14,000 reindeer were grazing in this area in 1976. Several hundred others live on St. Lawrence Island. The distribution of herds in past and recent times is shown in Figure 147. The numbers of animals from 1892 to the present are shown in Figure 156.

Lichens are the single most important part of reindeer and caribou diets. According to Andreev (1954), these plants may be two-thirds of the food eaten by reindeer and are especially important during winter. In summer they eat a wider range of species, which includes shrubs, herbs, and mosses. On warm days, lichens become dry and brittle and are easily destroyed when trampled. They are slow to recover and may be displaced by less desirable species.

The quality of winter range usually determines carrying capacity. Productive capacity of good range on the Seward Peninsula is between 100 and 200 pounds of forage per acre annually, with a carrying capacity of about one deer per 104 acres (Palmer 1945). Meat productivity on the Seward Peninsula averages 0.067 pounds per acre, which is approximately the same as that for major caribou herds of the state.

Renewed Native interest in reindeer production has resulted in the recent reactivation of the Reindeer Herders Association based in Nome. The association sets harvest quotas, and the Bureau of Land Management has responsibility for assessing range condition and trends, establishing carrying capacities, and issuing grazing permits. The availability of rangelands may change considerably when land ownerships designated by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act are finalized.

Reindeer were introduced to the Northwest Region in the 1890s and have provided not only a significant source of red meat for local consumption but also the basis for an important animal husbandry industry.


[Alaska Regional Profiles, Northwest Region, pp. 178-179]

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