As a warming climate threatens traditional food supplies in the Arctic, one rural Alaskan village is flying in hundreds of reindeer by cargo plane. James Cook went to find out why.
Only 12,000 years late, on an experimental farm outside Fairbanks in central Alaska, Greg Finstad is proposing an agricultural revolution.
For the indigenous communities of the north, he is advocating a move from hunting to farming, in particular to farming reindeer.
Finstad, who runs the Reindeer Research Program at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, says the subsistence lifestyle of rural communities on the Yukon river is under serious threat in a time of tumultuous change.
Softly spoken, his eyes shaded from the sunshine by a baseball cap, Finstad is a disarming mix of wit, charm and frankness.
“They’re off the road system, he says. “They have to ship very expensive food. They’re very worried about starving and it’s a legitimate concern.”
Shrinking food options
For those who have traditionally relied on subsistence hunting, these are indeed challenging times.
Polar bears are scarcer than ever and, even for the few with permits to hunt the animals, tracking them on thinning ice is becoming ever more dangerous.
Wild caribou herds have been shrinking for reasons that are not entirely clear.
And last year saw the lowest harvest of pink salmon since 1977, although sockeye salmon have been more resilient.
A more unpredictable climate may be affecting the animals’ migration patterns and food sources, although some recent evidence suggests they may now be adapting to those changes.
What is not in doubt, according to more than 90 scientists who contributed to a recent report by an Arctic Council working group, is “rising concentrations of greenhouse gases are driving widespread changes in the Arctic’s sensitive climate”.
According to the report, ice on sea and land is declining; permafrost is warming; and spring snow cover is retreating.
“With each additional year of data, it becomes increasingly clear that the Arctic as we know it is being replaced by a warmer, wetter, and more variable environment,” say the authors, who add that the transformation has “profound implications for people, resources, and ecosystems worldwide”.
‘Eskimo ice cream’
One Yukon river community – Steven’s Village – has purchased a 2,000 acre (800 hectare) farm. The plan is to raise some 1,500 to 2,000 reindeer to feed the village, to sell, and to act as a staging area for livestock for other settlements.
Finstad thinks deer are hardier than cattle, and in any case he is not a fan of the beef industry, which he accuses of trying to stymie reindeer production.
“If you compare beef to reindeer we flat out kick their butt every time in flavour,” he insists.
He says the plan is to load hundreds of reindeer onto a Douglas DC-6 transport plane and fly them from the west coast of Alaska to the interior to start the new farm.
This “seed stock” for Steven’s Village may come from Nome on the Seward peninsula, which juts out towards Russia between the Bering and Chukchi seas.
There is a historical twist here. The Seward peninsula is the region where reindeer were first introduced to the United States from Siberia in 1892 because Alaskan whaling communities were struggling to survive.
Maintaining the reindeer population on the peninsula has been difficult. Stopping animals running off with migrating caribou herds is a particular challenge.
Caribou and reindeer are the same species – Rangifer tarandus – but in North America, the semi-domesticated variety are known as reindeer, and the wild herds are known as caribou. (In Europe the word caribou is not used at all.)
Ann and Bruce Davis, who have a thriving reindeer herd in Nome at their Midnite Sun Reindeer Ranch, also rhapsodise about the properties of the meat.
“The fat is deposited on the outside of the reindeer and not marbled within the meat so the meat is very lean,” says Bruce Davis.
The fat doesn’t go to waste though. The Inupiat people mix it with a variety of berries to make a concoction which the Davises say is known locally as “Eskimo ice cream”.
“It’s very high in carbs and fat and so it’s a good source of energy and it’s pretty good to eat too,” says Ann Davis before offering a word of caution. “It’s nothing like American ice cream!”
There are plenty of other ways to eat reindeer, including roasting it with garlic and herbs, frying the animal’s heart or in a traditional Sami bidu, or feast stew.
Before reindeer consumption becomes widespread though, there is a problem to overcome. Reindeer have rather good PR, Greg Finstad admits.
“It’s the perception that reindeer are on this planet to pull a sled with this chubby guy in a red suit and a white beard… but that’s actually not true,” he says. “Reindeer are on this planet to feed people.”
“So I guess it’s my job to take the magic of Christmas.”
“We have to eat Rudolph?” I ask.
“Yes,” answers Finstad, his expression somewhere between weary and mischievous.
“I actually got in trouble saying we are going to eat rump of Rudolph.
“So I try not to say that anymore.”