Reindeer populations across the world are plummeting, thanks to a combination of factors including climate change and human interference, a new study has found. This decrease could actually have lasting effects on climate change, even outside of the Arctic.
The study, which focused on reindeer native to China, found that the populations have seen large declines. In China, reindeer populations have dropped over 25 percent since the 1970s. Mount Daxinganling is the main habitat for reindeer in China. It has been negatively impacted by climate change, causing to soil degradation and higher temperatures, which have hurt reindeer. Human interference, such as poaching for antlers which are used in traditional Chinese medicine, the selling of reindeer to tourists, and reindeer being killed by cars, also have hurt the populations in China.
While the study focuses solely on reindeer populations in China, the trend is not limited to that country. A 2013 report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that major reindeer herds in Alaska, Canada, and Russia have all seen declines in population. The largest herd, located in the Taymyr peninsula of Russia, has declined from about 1 million reindeer in 2000 to 700,000 in 2013. The report also found that many reindeer herd’s ranges are smaller than they have been in the past. In 2012, the International Fund of Wildlife’s Jeff Flocken said there has been roughly a 60 percent decline from historical high levels, and that the decline was caused by climate change.
Loss of reindeer populations could actually exacerbate climate change. Researchers in Finland have found that grazing by reindeer can help prevent solar heat absorption which can lead to climate change. In their study, they found that areas where reindeer did not graze had higher levels of heat radiation, thanks to higher levels of shrubs and trees that absorbed heat. A Swedish study has found that reindeer can also prevent the climate-change-caused spread of invasive species in the Arctic tundra.
Reindeer are currently rated as a species of “least concern” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of threatened species. According to the Red List, industrial development and human activity, including poaching, are major threats to the reindeer.
Reindeer are not the only Arctic species whose populations are being threatened by climate change. Earlier this fall, around 35,000 walruses were stranded on an Alaskan beach, an increasingly common occurrence due to the lack of sea ice, and which can lead to the trampling of cubs. Melting ice has also been linked to deaths of baby harp seals. It has negatively impacted the rare western glacier stonefly, Peregrine falcon chicks and, of course, polar bears.