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No Lichen, No Problem: St. Paul’s Reindeer Thrive Without Essential Food

Jan 30, 2017

With no lichen left on St. Paul Island, reindeer are grazing on grass and digging up roots.
Credit Courtesy Paul Melovidov

For a long time, scientists thought reindeer would be big losers in climate change, but the reindeer on St. Paul Island are challenging that theory.

As their main winter food source has disappeared, the St. Paul herd has changed its diet so they can survive on the remote island. This adaptation could have global implications for reindeer facing a warming climate.

If there’s one fact everyone agrees on about reindeer, it’s this:

“No lichen. No reindeer,” said Lauren Divine, co-director of the Aleut Community of St. Paul’s Ecosystem Conservation Office (ECO). “Reindeer all over the world depend on lichen. They’re very high in sugars and starch. They’re considered like a Snickers bar for reindeer in the winter”

Reindeer aren’t native to Alaska. They were brought to rural villages – including those in the Pribilof Islands – in the early 1900s. The St. Paul herd roams free, but like all reindeer, they are domesticated.

When reindeer first came to the small island, there was a lot of lichen, but the reindeer ate it faster than it could regrow and now it’s gone. The reindeer, however, are still there: about 400 of them.

Divine was interested in managing the herd more formally, so in March of 2016 she connected with Greg Finstad, program manager of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Reindeer Research Program, and invited him to visit.

When Finstad got there, he saw something he’d never witnessed before.

“The reindeer are doing something really very interesting,” Finstad said. “They have managed to find other things to eat. They’ve gone underground.”

When examining the animals, Finstad discovered instead of lichen, reindeer on St. Paul are grazing on grass and digging up roots.

Grass is rich in fiber and their teeth are wearing down faster because they’re eating more of it than typical reindeer. Based on the size of the animals — they’re gigantic — Finstad can tell the herd is consuming a lot of protein.

On St. Paul, the reindeer are responsible for decimating the lichen; they’ve literally eaten it all. Lichen is also disappearing around the world, but there’s a different culprit: climate change.

Finstad thinks what’s happening on St. Paul could be a preview of how more northern herds may adapt to a warmer planet.

“There’s a lot of scientists, researchers, reindeer producers waving their arms in the world, ‘oh climate change, it’s the death of reindeer and caribou,'” Finstad said. “But you know what, we’ve forgotten to tell the reindeer and caribou: things change and they change with it.”

Finstad used to worry about the future of reindeer, but what he’s seen on St. Paul makes him optimistic that reindeer could deal with climate change just fine.

Mark Boyce, an ecology professor who studies caribou at the University of Alberta, isn’t ready to make that leap.

“I would say no,” Boyce said. “It’s an island population and a very small sample of our global populations of reindeer and caribou. The general pattern has been one of decline. So I guess I’m not very optimistic.”

Boyce says he’s happy to hear some herds — like the one on St. Paul — might do better than expected. But he says overall, the picture for reindeer is bleak.

Finstad thinks skeptics like Boyce can be convinced if they visit the island and see the herd with their own eyes. Finstad has seen reindeer around the world and he says the St. Paul herd is exceptional.

“These are beautiful, magnificent animals: Large healthy females, large antlers,” Finstad said. “The antlers are as large as the males. The calves, they are large. Very healthy good looking population.”

Residents of St. Paul are taking full advantage of the herd. The community has mostly subsistence hunted fur seal and seabirds, but Lauren Divine says there are now more reindeer hunters than anything on the island. The thriving reindeer herd is an especially important source of meat in a place where grocery prices are astronomical.