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Digital Branch of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Oral History Program

"Episode 4: The Caribou Crisis" Transcript

Episode #4: The Caribou Crisis


The Seward Peninsula in northwest Alaska has the longest historical record of reindeer herding in arctic North America. Since its inception in the late 1800's, there have been several major shifts in the health of the herds and today herders take on challenges that rival any that they or their ancestors have faced. Elders spoke of the threat to the reindeer herds from wild caribou in the past and they warned that the caribou would someday return. Today, caribou are streaming onto the peninsula in record numbers, mixing with and scattering the reindeer making it nearly impossible for the herders to control and track their herds. Some have lost their entire herds to the caribou. Those who still retain their reindeer endure and very much like their ancestors, they continue to plan for the future.

Experiences of reindeer herders and those of their ancestors have strongly influenced their response to the recent caribou crisis. In the old days before reindeer, elders told how they used an unusual geological feature near the center of the peninsula to help them ambush caribou for meat. Dan Karmun from a prominent reindeer herding family, tells a remarkable story about the caribou around the turn-of-the-century that he heard while growing up:  

Dan Karmun: "My brother would tell me stories about caribou during the latter 1800s right up there at Imuruk Lake. There were people - Natives that lived there - would have a trail from the lava beds up to the south side where they had their camps. And whenever the caribou would come around, they would use the lava beds as a source of getting them.”

Elders predicted that the caribou would return to the Seward Peninsula. Today, herders reflect on these stories to help them understand recent changes. Dan Karmun shares his knowledge and why he thinks the caribou are coming back. He points to the depletion of the forage resources on their historic range:

Dan Karmun: "History kind of tells us when there is a depletion of food source they tend to probably come in their migration, north to south. If the caribou presence were here in the early 1800s, probably that food source was beginning to deplete so they moved away. And in their migration, begin to come down and look for food sources again, no doubt. Our ancestors always told us that one day the caribous are going to come back again. I think that's true."

Some herders believe that there have been other more subtle signs of the impending change in caribou numbers; signs that were observed by many. Herder Nathan Hadley recalls his youth when the first caribou came into the country and what happened over the years. Further south and west, herder Larry Davis reported a similar pattern in more recent times:

Nathan Hadley: "When I was like fourteen years old, 1954, me and my friend Jimmy Geary went rounding up with my father, Paul Hadley and Marvin Thomas. Marvin and my dad were with the main herd, and Jimmy and I went and go pick up that one little bunch with that one big bull, and we drove that bunch to our main herd and we go to our camp. Me and my friend tell my father; we tell my father there's the biggest reindeer we ever see in our lives. Marvin and my dad, they hurry up dress up; go up there and they butcher that caribou."

Larry Davis: "Well, I didn't really notice any caribou coming until just recently. I don't know about the last five years or so. The first caribou I noticed was one at Salmon Lake and there was just one; I think that was the actual male leaders that came down because I thought there was one caribou in the herd and I could recognize it right away. And after I drove all the deer from Salmon Lake down to about the corral there, I shot the caribou because I knew it wasn't safe to have him around.”

Some herders believe that climate change has facilitated the migration of caribou onto the Seward Peninsula. Caribou consume the same forage as reindeer and these slow-growing tundra plants take time to recover from heavy grazing. The long-term effect of caribou on the range is what worries some herders most. Herder Herb Karmun talks about the range dilemma. Herder Palmer Sagoonick shares his experiences in coping with the caribou problem and the predicament he finds himself in today:

Herb Karmun: "So I think they're kind of moving away from the lava bed. Now they are heading more west; must be running out of food in that area. If they keep running my range, I didn't have enough range to raise a herd because they just eat it out. There's no way I can start over again. It's impossible. How can I feed in wintertime - can't afford it. So once that moss is gone, there's no hope for any of us in that area because they just keep heading west. It's going to be tough."

Palmer Sagoonick: "For several years we had really good income from the horns, and we've always had good income from the meat product because we were real careful how we, how we did our meat market; make sure we had young steers and make sure that our meat is clean. And that went real well for a good twenty-five years till the caribou migration start coming on. The caribou herd, we all know, just grew and grew and grew until it over-grazed the areas and start going into new areas to feed for the winter range. And of course they came to Koyuk and took over the Koyuk herd and started coming into our range. At first we were able to control the caribou migration because it was small, just in the thousands. Two to three thousand animals would come through and we were able to drive them off and keep the herds safe. And as the years went by, the migration just kept getting stronger and stronger and pretty soon we had tens of thousands. Hundreds of thousands of caribou came through and finally it just got so overwhelming, and just took over. Just went through my whole range and got mixed up with my reindeer, and I lost the whole herd in one night; about 2500 head. The caribou are just overwhelming. I don't think I have a single reindeer on my range, but I renewed my grazing permit for my area thinking about what healthy meat can do to my people; a healthy source of protein that we've grown to love and to live by is gone. I hope it's not gone forever."

Despite the challenges posed by caribou incursions on the peninsula and unpredictable climate change, today's herders see reindeer in their future. Roger Menadelook, who lost his entire herd when it followed migrating caribou, still wants to herd deer. Tom Gray, a herder who still has reindeer, continues to believe in a prosperous reindeer industry. He is hopeful for the future of his children as herders:

Roger Menadelook: "If I had a chance to get a loan on deer, yes, I would. I like staying with reindeer. It's my way of making a life. I'm never an office man."

Tom Gray: "I don't see Alaska shutting out the reindeer industry all together. I want my kids to be involved in it, but it's going to take more than money to make it work. The goal of the future of the reindeer industry needs to be lets protect the ranges. Let's look at our kids and try to set goals and hopefully our kids will be in a position to bring this industry back to where it needs to go."

Funding was provided by the National Science Foundation Arctic Systems Science Program. This is Kathy Turco.

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