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    Ideas | Ray Cavanaugh

    Rudolph on the run

    In this photo taken on Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2016, reindeer pasture in the Yamal region, Russia. The indigenous reindeer herders in Russia’s northern Yamal Region, a remote section of Siberia where winter temperatures can sink below minus 50 degrees Celsius, are facing a man-made threat as officials push ahead with an unprecedented culling that calls for at least one in seven of the Yamal’s reindeer to be slaughtered. Regional government spokeswoman Olesya Litovskikh denied the oil and gas industry lobbied for increased culling. Energy companies spend “billions of rubles” developing far-flung areas and supporting Nenets culture, Litovskikh said. (AP Photo/Igor Novikov)
    AP Photo/Igor Novikov
    A reindeer pasture in the Yamal region of Russia.

    Santa settled for nine reindeer, but the Yamelo-Nenets region of Siberia has more than 700,000 — an overpopulation that has led to overgrazing and increased risk of anthrax and so-called zombie diseases.

    To combat such issues, a massive reindeer cull is underway. The initial plan was to slaughter 250,000 animals, but that number has been trimmed to a comparatively gentle 100,000, according to The Siberian Times. Some have voiced concern that the motive behind the Siberian cull — which began in November — is to free up area for the gas industry. A petition has been issued to stop the culling altogether, and those opposed to the cull are hoping that President Vladimir Putin — perhaps buoyed by recent political developments on the world stage — will find it within his heart this Christmas to save the reindeer.

    Reindeer, red-nosed or otherwise, are regarded as an invasive species in some of the world’s most remote spots, such as South Georgia (a British island territory in the southern Atlantic, about 1,000 miles away from the Falkland Islands) and the Kerguelen Islands (a French territory in the southern Indian Ocean, more than 2,000 miles from any sizeable human population).


    These far-flung creatures perfectly capture our conflicting and often contradictory emotional attachment to certain species: They can be both cute and corrosive. These distant reindeer herds, for instance, are often the descendants of ones transferred from their native terrain in order to provide a food source for people involved with the whaling industry. Where once they were fuel, we now regard whales as noble creatures, worthy of protection. Meanwhile, the species that filled the stomachs of whaling workers — cute though we imagine them to be — has become a pest.

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    Year in, year out, the reindeer went on with life and continued to multiply — to the point where they elicit recurring complaints for destroying land and causing serious problems for other species. Their growing population has led to tighter competition for food, bringing malnutrition and physical problems for many, along with fatal falls and other accidents while trying to cross natural barriers to reach untouched land, according to a 2010 report by the Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.

    “If an area gets overpopulated by reindeer, it will affect the amount of food available to each reindeer,” points out Dag Stian Husby, communication adviser for the Norwegian Environment Agency. “In Norway, we regulate the wild reindeer population size through annual harvests. The meat from the harvested animals [is] used for human consumption.”

    Norway saw a horrifying, “X-files”-type incident earlier this year when more than 300 reindeer — which tend to gather very closely during storms — were killed simultaneously by a lightning strike. Another four dozen Norwegian reindeer were killed when a train barreled into them this fall, according to a Norway Today report. A similar incident, with almost the exact number of fatalities, occurred in Sweden in January 2014.

    With the possible exception of St. Nick’s stable, the happiest place for a reindeer seems to be the United States, where “the numbers are so small we’re just trying to keep them alive,” says Mike Jablonski, who has about 50 mountain reindeer on his Antler Ridge Reindeer Farm in Hamburg, N.Y. Jablonski, who knows plenty about these animals but very little about culling them, serves as president of the Reindeer Owners and Breeders Association, which exists for the “betterment of the health and welfare of reindeer.” He speaks about them affectionately: “They walk like a dog and eat out of your hand.”


    In return for a place to stay and for meals consisting of carrots, raisins, pellet feed, and forage, the reindeer accompany their owner to holiday events, where children delight in their presence and adults sometimes express surprise that these creatures are not just an invention of holiday lore and actually do exist.

    Jablonski estimates that there are about 2,000 reindeer in the lower 48 states. They’re all domesticated, he says. “Reindeer would not survive on their own in the lower 48 states. Either a predator would get to them, or they’d eat the wrong thing and just get sick and die.” Domesticated reindeer can live up to 18 years.

    In the wild, they might reach a decade — if they can avoid being mauled by a predator, consumed by starvation, fried by lightning, crushed by a train, ravaged by anthrax, or shot down in a mandated cull near one of the earth’s frigid ends.

    Ray Cavanaugh is a freelance writer.