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Is Climate Change Responsible For Arctic Reindeer Decline?

December 16, 2018

By Paul Homewood

The BBC is happy to uncritically report claims that Arctic reindeer are suffering because of climate change.

But what is the real truth?


The population of wild reindeer, or caribou, in the Arctic has crashed by more than half in the last two decades.

A new report on the impact of climate change in the Arctic revealed that numbers fell from almost 5 million to around 2.1 million animals.

The report was released at the American Geophysical Research Union meeting.

It revealed how weather patterns and vegetation changes are making the Arctic tundra a much less hospitable place for reindeer.

Reindeer and caribou are the same species, but the vast, wild herds in northern Canada and Alaska are referred to as caribou.

It is these herds that are faring the worst, according to scientists monitoring their numbers. Some herds have shrunk by more than 90% – "such drastic declines that recovery isn’t in sight", this Arctic Report Card stated.

Why is a warmer Arctic worse for reindeer?

There are multiple reasons.

Prof Howard Epstein, an environmental scientist from the University of Virginia, who was one of the many scientists involved in the research behind the Arctic Report Card, told BBC News that warming in the region showed no signs of abating.

"We see increased drought in some areas due to climate warming, and the warming itself leads to a change of vegetation."

Image copyright NOAA Image caption The Arctic is greening, but that is not good news for reindeer

The lichen that the caribou like to eat grows at the ground level. "Warming means other, taller vegetation is growing and the lichen are being out-competed," he told BBC News.

Another very big issue is the number of insects. "Warmer climates just mean more bugs in the Arctic," said Prof Epstein. "It’s said that a nice day for people is a lousy day for caribou.

"If it’s warm and not very windy, the insects are oppressive and these animals spend so much energy either getting the insects off of them or finding places where they can hide from insects."

Rain is a major problem, too. Increased rainfall in the Arctic, often falling on snowy ground, leads to hard, frozen icy layers covering the grazing tundra – a layer the animals simply cannot push their noses through in order to reach their food.

I am highly suspicious when I hear claims like this. After all, reindeer have been a key component of Eurasian high latitude ecosystems for at least 2 million years, during which the climate in the Arctic has varied enormously.

We know that the Arctic has been warmer than now for most of the last ten thousands, most recently during the Middle Ages. So why did not Reindeer all die out then?

A 2015 study from Russia by experts there gives an indication that matters are not quite as black and white as the climate obsessed scientists in the US pretend:



The Taimyr wild reindeer herd, i.e., caribou (Rangifer tarandus), is one of the most important wildlife resources in the Russian Far North and may constitute the largest migratory Rangifer herd in the world. Over the last 60 years the herd has undergone a recovery from low numbers in the 1940s, reaching high densities by 1970 that concerned wildlife managers and domestic husbandry herds, with an 11.7% annual growth rate. At that time an aggressive commercial harvest of the herd was implemented, and organized wolf control was initiated with the goal of stabilizing herd numbers and injecting needed economic activity into the region. These actions dampened the rate of increase throughout the 1970s and 1980s to a 3.0% annual growth rate. From 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of financial capability to sustain the commercial harvest and continue wolf control, the population again increased at a 5.6% annual growth rate, until peaking in 2000 at just more than 1 million animals. Since 2000 the herd has been in decline; harvesting, primarily unregulated, has increased; the wolf population has increased; and range conditions have deteriorated. Understanding what has occurred in the Taimyr range can provide North American managers with valuable lessons in understanding the large migratory herds on this continent, especially given that the social and political situation in Russia enabled intensive management, i.e., harvest and wolf control, that may not be able to be duplicated in North America.

Note how reindeer population has swung sharply up and down during the last 60 years, ostensibly because of factors such as harvest rates, wolf control and government support policies.

This section of the paper offers more detail:

Significant efforts began in the early 1970s to actively promote commercial harvest of Taimyr’s wild reindeer in response to concern about overexploitation of the range by a growing wild population (Klokov 1997). This response was made to avoid conflicts with the domestic reindeer industry and to obtain some economic benefits from an expanding wild population (Syroechkovskii 1975). The majority of the harvesting was conducted at river crossings by hunting brigades located along the Piasina and Kheta rivers, at the distance of 15 – 20 km between each brigade (Klokov 1997).

As a consequence of the significant commercial investments and returns in the wild reindeer population, monitoring of the herd was much more active than it was in previous decades. Despite a significant increase in harvest throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the herd continued to increase from 330,000 to 670,000 by 1993 (Fig. 2), a 3% annual rate of increase. Harvest peaked in 1988 with 120,000 animals taken (Fig. 3; Kolpaschikov and Mikhailov 2002).

As part of sustaining the commercial harvest program, wolf management aimed to dramatically reduce the wolf population within the herd’s range. Not only were wolves killed during harvesting operations and incidental to reindeer herding, but state agencies used an active aerial hunting program to reduce wolf numbers. Even though it was expected that the wolf population would increase in response to increased wild reindeer numbers, the active wolf control program was thought to stabilize and even reduce wolf numbers. On average through the 1970s and 1980s, 500 – 600 wolves out of an estimated population of 1500 wolves (Klein and Kolpashikov 1991) were removed annually within the range of the Taimyr herd.

The chain of events that eventually led to the collapse of the Soviet Union had dramatic ramifications for the management and exploitation of the wild Taimyr reindeer herd (Baskin 2005). The state’s financial support for harvest and management of both the wild and domestic populations was eliminated (Kolpaschikov et al. 2003b, Baskin 2005). For the commercial harvesting of the wild population, the change meant that the era of cheap transport, mainly the use of helicopters, was over (Klokov 2004). Whereas population estimates were attempted annually during the commercial period, after 1991 there was no money available for a population count until 2000, when an estimate of more than 1 million wild reindeer was reported (Yakushkin et al. 2001). This constituted an annual increase between 1993 and 2000 of 5.6%. Intensive commercial harvesting stopped abruptly following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and an era of unsubsidized, unregulated hunting of wild and domestic reindeer ensued. Compared with the commercial harvest in the 1980s, the harvest in Taimyr after 1991 was estimated to have been reduced by 45% – 50% based on the best estimates of researchers in the field (Kolpaschikov et al. 2003b). Private hunting began to increase in 2000. In the period from 2005 to 2010, about 85,000 reindeer were harvested by hunting annually. This number is almost twice the quota set by the state (Fig. 3).

Aerial hunting of wolves and the use of specialized on-the-ground wolf hunting squads stopped because of a lack of funding. At the same time, the population of wild reindeer rapidly increased, improving the prey base for the wolves. As a result, the number of wolves and predation rates grew, based on aerial and tracking surveys, to an estimate of 3000-3500 by 2000 (Suvorov 2001a), with predation of up to 50,000 to 60,000 wild reindeer annually. As the wild reindeer population declined, and with wolf numbers still high, managers estimated that by 2009 wolves were responsible for more than 30% of the annual wild reindeer mortality.


The Taimyr wild reindeer population constitutes a critical natural resource in central Russia. Over the last six decades managers have reacted to natural and political challenges in the management of the herd. Slow population growth, expansion of range, and conflicts with domestic reindeer characterized the 1950-1970 period. Beginning in 1970, a decision was made to aggressively manage the herd to support local economies, prevent overgrazing, and reduce the conflicts with domestic reindeer. From 1970 to 1990, state agencies actively controlled wolves and supported commercial harvesting through the construction of infrastructure and subsidization of transportation and marketing. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, agencies lost most of their funding. As a result, commercial harvesting subsidies were halted, wolf control was stopped, and with limited personnel, enforcement was reduced. In the postcommercial period of 1991 to the present, the herd initially increased from the stable condition maintained between 1970 and 1990, peaking at 1 million animals in 2000. Since that peak, the herd has been declining and the experts maintain that wolf predation and unregulated harvest are the major factors in the decline. The experience in managing this large Rangifer herd during its increase and decrease phases offers some lessons for North America, especially with respect to the role of harvest and predation in the regulation of large migratory tundra herds. 

In short, reindeer population grew strongly between 1970 and 2000, by when it exceeded the carrying capacity of the range. Since then increased hunting and wolf predation have been the major factors in the decline of the reindeer population, back to historical normal levels.

  1. Gamecock permalink
    December 16, 2018 2:10 pm

    Polar bear BS wearing thin, so they trot out the reindeer – at Christmas time.

    • Broadlands permalink
      December 16, 2018 2:19 pm

      And in some “enlightened” places the popular Christmas song about Rudolph and his red nose has been banned…by the local PC Police.

      • roger permalink
        December 16, 2018 2:36 pm

        You’re ‘avin’ a giraffe!

      • Sheri permalink
        December 16, 2018 3:27 pm

        That’s because Rudolph was “used” by Santa and loved by the reindeer because of his usefullness, not for who is was. You know, like all the people in America used by the Left and then tossed out when no longer useful. I guess they have a monopoly on that move and we can’t have Santa using it.

  2. Roy permalink
    December 16, 2018 3:26 pm

    When the only tool the BBC own is a hammer (to beat us over the head with AGW crap), every problem starts to resembles a nail.

  3. BLACK PEARL permalink
    December 16, 2018 4:15 pm

    Wasn’t there some herds killed off by anthrax also a while back

  4. December 16, 2018 4:45 pm

    Polar bears, penguins, and now reindeer, could this be a carefully selected set of animals to investigate for propaganda purposes? Anyway, here is an extract from the abstract of a 2010 paper suggesting that warmer winters have been beneficial for the reindeer (Rangifer):

    “There are few data demonstrating the presence of extensive hard snow or basal ice on ranges during winter(s) in which populations declined, and none confirming ice as a ubiquitous and potent agent in the dynamics of Rangifer. Instead, where the simultaneous effects of density‐dependent and density‐independent factors are examined across the full temporal record of dynamics, climatic conditions associated with increased amounts of snow or winter warming are generally found to enhance the abundance of animals, at least in established populations.”

    • December 17, 2018 12:23 pm

      Don’t forget the recent puffins or the long ago seal pups. If there is not a way to tug at the heart, you don’t stand a chance on the environmentalist’s “animal victim du jour” list.

  5. Vernon E permalink
    December 16, 2018 6:22 pm

    Can somebody (which can only be Paul, of course) please tell me in simple words whether the Arctic (similarly the Antarctic) is warming or not?

    • The Informed Consumer permalink
      December 16, 2018 7:30 pm

      Vernon E

      They both warm during daylight hours, and cool during the dark hours.

      This is true be it winter or summer.

      If you want to know if they are warming/cooling overall, what time span are you considering; a day, a night, a week, a year, or the last million years?

      If they all began to unexpectedly melt unstoppably, day and night, winter and summer, it would take the Antarctic around 1,000 years to melt I believe.

      No need to panic, nor your children, or grandchildren.

    • MrGrimNasty permalink
      December 16, 2018 7:35 pm

      Probably a representative summary:-

      In recent decades – Arctic yes, Antarctica marginal either way.

      But the Arctic has certainly been warmer for extended periods in the last 11,000 years than it is now.

    • December 16, 2018 7:41 pm

      It’s warmed since the 1970s, but is more or less back to where it was in the 1930s.

  6. Ben Vorlich permalink
    December 16, 2018 9:24 pm

    There is a herd of reindeer in the Cairngorms and has been for as long as i remember. I’m not entirely sure why they were brought in, however they seem to have survived OK. Now it still gets pretty cold in the Cairngorms but I think not as cold as their native land so I think they’re going to be OK.

    • Saighdear permalink
      December 17, 2018 2:20 pm

      Naw, they’re no’ ! Latest bbc claptrap – last week – Univ of uselessness in scotland claims that they are destroying the ECO-system ….. uhuh ! Go tell th at the Bear-Wold huggers then too – ‘cos they want ’em reintroduced too – like they were scarce on the planet…

    • MrGrimNasty permalink
      December 17, 2018 5:09 pm

      BBC CountryFile covered the Cairngorms herd last week. They are fed and managed so not exposed to ‘climate’ risks. But they did shoot the Arctic warming is a threat thing in the foot by declaring that the reindeer were ideally suited to the (almost?) sub-Arctic conditions i.e. considerably warmer than arctic! In a long-winded political monumentally absurd piece on homelessness in the countryside, they also managed to admit that the countryside is considerably colder than towns i.e. UHI is massive.

  7. RAH permalink
    December 16, 2018 11:43 pm

    Since their Climate change Icon the Polar Bear has been proven to be doing fine contrary to their claims it is time to find another. Thus we have see them moving on to the Reindeer. I am confident that their claims will once again be proven false once legitimate researchers start tackling the question.

    • Gamecock permalink
      December 17, 2018 12:57 am

      I was hoping they’d cry about the penguins in the Arctic.

      • December 17, 2018 12:25 pm

        Or the polar bears in the Antarctic?

      • dave permalink
        December 17, 2018 5:44 pm

        I heard that the polar bears in the Antarctic are eating the penguins in the Arctic – or was it that tyranosaurs are falling through cracks in the glaciers? – I know it was something unprecedented…

      • RAH permalink
        December 18, 2018 12:06 am

        Didn’t you guys hear? Santa had to move his operations from the N. Pole to the S. Pole due to the melting. There are now reindeer, including a subspecies with glowing red noses in Antarctica.

    • December 17, 2018 1:09 pm

      The “legitimate researchers” are all in it together, to provide evidence for what one paper refers to as the “ruling hypothesis”, that warmer winters are bad for the critters. This is clearly an example of deciding the answer in advance, an answer that is just as clearly politically correct and funding friendly.

      • RAH permalink
        December 17, 2018 2:28 pm

        Really? You better tell that to the several researchers that blew the dying polar bear myth out of the water then. They didn’t get the memo.

  8. December 17, 2018 9:20 am

    It’s not remotely science, just some dubious claims about numbers followed by some guesses as to why numbers might have declined. Where is there anything resembling science?

  9. Up2snuff permalink
    December 17, 2018 2:38 pm

    If I recall correctly, there have been big changes among the migratory Saami people (who herd reindeer and live off their herds) and this may well have affected the Arctic reindeer numbers.

    Ironically for the BBC and their hard-AGW/CC doctrine, IIRC, a good hot summer is essential for breeding and other management of the herds, so if there have been some recent very poor summers in the Arctic – I seem to recall those also – that also may have again adversely affected reindeer populations.

  10. nickreality65 permalink
    December 17, 2018 5:10 pm

    For the greenhouse effect to work as advertised the surface of the earth must radiate as an ideal black body. However, the non-radiative heat transfer processes of the contiguous atmospheric air and water molecules renders such ideal BB upwelling impossible.

    Because the atmosphere and the albedo it creates reflect away 30% of the incoming solar energy the earth is cooler compared to no atmosphere and does not warm it per greenhouse theory. Without the atmosphere the earth would be much like the moon, blazing hot on the lit side, bitter cold on the dark, a bone dry, gray, barren rock, nothing like a frozen ball of snow and ice.

    No greenhouse effect, no carbon dioxide warming and no man caused climate change.

  11. December 17, 2018 5:37 pm

    The George River herd has lost 99%, down from 800,000 in the early 1990s due mostly to over hunting, both commercially any by natives.
    Sometimes it is just nature as happened in 1986 when 10,000 caribou drowned:

  12. It doesn't add up... permalink
    December 17, 2018 7:54 pm

    Don’t forget the blackcurrants!

    P.S. I live on a blackcurrant farm: this year’s crop was excellent quality (superb jam, cordial, and in a few months – cassis) thanks to the sunshine, and we had two periods with a foot of snow last winter. The two years before produced bumper crops without the benefit of quite as harsh a winter.

    • MrGrimNasty permalink
      December 17, 2018 10:50 pm

      There are plenty of varieties with a wide range of requirements for winter temperatures, and different flowering periods and frost tolerance thereof. I know Ben Lomond is supposed to have a high winter chilling requirement and is not recommended for warmer areas of the UK. New varieties are coming along constantly. It’s just another example of where the climate scare story is (a) probably wrong (b) doesn’t allow for adaptation.

      Most fruit trees have a chilling requirement but it’s never been an issue that I’ve experienced in all the years of enormous weather variation. Biggest factor seems to be how fine the weather is when the blossom does come out – pollinators on the wing, and no late frosts just after the fruit has set. Most common varieties of apple/pear/plum etc. are commercially grown all over the world in vast ranges of climate.

  13. yonason permalink
    December 18, 2018 7:51 am

    How soon they forget.

    …or want us to.

  14. tom0mason permalink
    December 18, 2018 10:01 am

    Here’s a heads-up for you Paul.
    If this forecast from Berlin University happens (and many other models (GFS, CSF, etc.) are agreeing with this ECMWF forecast) then there will be a great wailing and gnashing of teeth as the effects of this predicted Sudden Stratospheric Warming (SSW) makes it way down through the atmosphere (if it happens it takes from a few days to two or more weeks!) in January, and will causes a few days of above usual temperatures over the Arctic (and maybe the Siberian regions.) see for Berlin Uni’s forecast.

    The Met Office explains a SSW

    Usually these events happen a bit later in the winter, and often cause a displacement of the polar vortex, moving the cold polar air out towards the temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere.
    A similar thing happened earlier in the year (February-March) giving the UK its “Beast from the East” and a general European late snow event. And back then I noted that many alarmist screeched that this was evidence of CO2 Polar warming when it was not. It’s just what often and quite naturally happens during a solar minimum.

    So Paul get ready for a New Year of the same bull$ħıt to arrive.

  15. Jon Scott permalink
    December 18, 2018 12:52 pm

    In no other scientific disciplin is baseless speculation given room. Why then is it tollerated and and seems encouraged together with emmitional expletives if the magic words climate change are included in the text? Something is rotten in Denmark

    • tom0mason permalink
      December 18, 2018 2:26 pm

      Jon Scott
      “In no other scientific disciplin is baseless speculation given room.”
      Thankfully we’re only talking/writing about ‘Climate Change’ (aka AGW), so no f*#king science has been affected. 😀 😃 😄

      ‘Climate Change’, it’s all about about money, power and influence, otherwise known as politics.

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