Reindeer are an integral part of our holiday season, but they’re even more crucial for the livelihood of 100,00 people in 20 indigenous communities in the Arctic. While their primary job of herding may seem menial, their work is vital to our environment. Across nine countries, 2.5 million domesticated reindeer help in reducing shrubification, regulating heat, and fertilizing the ground.
As the reindeer trample the ground while roaming freely, they prevent the growth of woody shrubs that would fill up the traditional boreal forest ecosystem. These woody shrubs can grow too far up, turning the open landscape into a dense forest. Although this may boost the bird diversity and population, it would reduce lichen growth and thereby the reindeer’s source of food. In the process of competing with native plants, shrubs can also alter the ecosystem’s mechanisms such as carbon sequestration and water distribution.
These shrubs also trap heat, impacting the albedo effect. Lichens are associated with thicker snow cover and more light reflection, supporting the reindeer habitat. Even though there was an increase in the reindeer population between 1986 and 2016, vegetation was still stable. The Arctic temperatures are expected to increase as carbon sinks decay in the absence of reindeer, scientists reporting that temperatures have already risen 2 degrees Celsius.
Reindeer droppings and carcasses, rich in enzymes and nutritious algae-fungi built from a sturdy diet, also help in deposit rich fertilizers that feed the rivers, soil, and greenery while absorbing greenhouse gasses. While also providing to the natural community, reindeer carcasses provide many resources to indigenous people. Their fur, skin, and bones are all used as various tools, forcing people to turn to factory created alternates if reindeer populations decline. This not only boosts the usage and waste of manufactured products, but also destroys traditions that have endured for centuries.
If climate change continues its current trend of reducing snow and lichen coverage, reindeer will become even more vulnerable, dropping in population. Although reindeer feeding patterns and snow depth might seem insignificant, data shows that their impact will be especially significant within fifty years, exacerbated by rising CO2 emissions.