Our first reindeer, Donder and Blitzen, arrived as calves in 1932 as a donation. Two years later, we welcomed the birth of Blitzen’s first calf. More reindeer were donated from Alaska in 1938.
Today, our small herd of reindeer is exhibited on the hillside behind the polar bear exhibit in the Northern Frontier. They are descended from Siberian reindeer.
The worldwide reindeer population, including domesticated reindeer, is about 5 million, including about 900,000 caribou in Alaska. Today, population density, predation, and disease seem to determine herd sizes of wild reindeer. Historically, overhunting has caused some reindeer populations to decline. In spite of strict anti-hunting measures, poaching is still a major threat in Russia. In Finland, logging and winter sporting activities may disturb reindeer habitat. And hybridization with domesticated reindeer is a potential problem for some populations.
The Arctic is changing, and as temperatures rise, white-tailed deer move into areas occupied by reindeer. These deer carry a worm parasite that is fatal to moose and reindeer populations. Warmer summers also mean more insect activity. Reindeer that are harassed by insects may not be able to forage enough to put on the weight they need to last through winter.
People are changing the tundra, too. Expanding oil exploration, industrial development, and increased disturbance from aircraft and snowmobiles are just some examples. So far, reindeer have been able to adapt to the presence of people and machines. But as people continue to develop the Arctic, the ongoing challenge will be to consider the needs of reindeer herds.