When Their Food Ran Out, These Reindeer Kept Digging Reindeer are thought to face a grim future as climate change threatens lichen, a key winter food source. But on one Alaskan island, reindeer have found a new food source, making scientists hopeful.
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When Their Food Ran Out, These Reindeer Kept Digging

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When Their Food Ran Out, These Reindeer Kept Digging

When Their Food Ran Out, These Reindeer Kept Digging

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Reindeer populations are being threatened by climate change. A warming world makes their main winter food source disappear. But as KUCB's Zoe Sobel reports, reindeer on one Alaskan island are surprising researchers.

ZOE SOBEL, BYLINE: You'd think it'd be easy to spot a herd of 400 reindeer on a treeless island with tundra as far as the eye can see, but it's not.

LAUREN DEVINE: Yeah, they were right here.

SOBEL: That's Lauren Devine of the Ecosystem Conservation Office. She helps manage the reindeer on St. Paul Island. Though on this windy day, she's hunting them. So far, no luck. Then a man who works in this remote area approaches our truck.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hey, you guys looking for the reindeer?

DEVINE: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You see that green patch right there?

DEVINE: Yep.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: They were just past it.

DEVINE: When?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: About two hours ago.

DEVINE: Oh, perfect.

SOBEL: Reindeer aren't native to Alaska. They were brought to rural villages across the state in the late 1800s. In communities like St. Paul, where grocery prices are astronomical, Devine says residents depend on reindeer to feed their families. And to make it through the winter, the reindeer need something, too.

DEVINE: Reindeer all over the world depend on lichen. They're very high in sugars and starch, and they're considered, like, a Snickers bar for reindeer in the winter.

SOBEL: But the reindeer ate the lichen here faster than it could regrow, and now it's gone. Without lichen, reindeer experts would expect to see malnourished or starving animals. In some places, that's already happening. But the animals on St. Paul are thriving. Greg Finstad is with the University of Alaska Fairbanks Reindeer Research Program. He came to study and evaluate the island's reindeer and environment. On a visit to St. Paul Island last year, he saw something he'd never witnessed before.

GREG FINSTAD: That the reindeer are doing something really very interesting. They have managed to find other things to eat. They've gone underground.

SOBEL: Finstad discovered instead of lichen, the reindeer are digging up roots and grazing on grass. He says that's good news. Lichens thrive in Arctic climates, but the Arctic is warming faster than the rest of the globe. These higher temperatures mean more wildfires, erratic rainfall and better conditions for other plants that can crowd out the lichen. All of this could mean less lichen for reindeer.

Plus, a warmer climate means what used to be snow is now rain. In Russia a few years ago, that created an icy barrier so thick the reindeer couldn't stamp through it to get to the lichen. Tens of thousands starved to death. That's why Finstad thinks it's important that the reindeer in St. Paul are finding something else to eat.

FINSTAD: 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. But you know what? We have forgotten to tell the reindeer and caribou. Things change, and they change with it.

MARK BOYCE: I would say no.

SOBEL: Ecology professor Mark Boyce of the University of Alberta is not convinced.

BOYCE: (Laughter) In the - I mean, it's an island population and a very small sample of our global populations of reindeer and caribou. And the general pattern has been one of decline, so I guess I'm not very optimistic.

SOBEL: Still, on this Alaska island for now, reindeer are doing just fine. And hunting them is more popular than ever. For NPR News, I'm Zoe Sobel in St. Paul.

SIMON: And this report comes from Alaska's Energy Desk, a public media collaboration that's focused on energy and the environment.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIKHAIL SAASKIA'S "LOOKING FOR ALASKA")

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