Where Have Santa's Reindeer Gone?
December 21, 2022
Nick Bradford

Did you know?

  • Reindeer were first brought to western Alaska in 1892 to provide Native Alaskans with a reliable source of food and financial stability.
  • It is hard for most people to detect a visual difference between caribou and reindeer. One feature that sets them apart is that reindeer have shorter legs than caribou.
  • The reindeer population on Alaska's Seward Peninsula decreased from 100,000 in the 1930s to 8,000-12,000 today.  

You probably recognize reindeer as the animals that help Santa Claus deliver gifts on Christmas Eve. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game even created a species profile page for the mythical flying creature. What you may not know about reindeer is that many indigenous peoples of western Alaska depend upon them for food and financial stability.

Most of the roughly 18,000 reindeer (Rangifer tarandus tarandus) in Alaska exist on the Seward Peninsula. These animals can only be owned and herded by Native Alaskans according to federal legislation. The reindeer found in Alaska are a different subspecies than the native caribou (Rangifer tarandus grantii) which are managed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) – the caribou population numbers are approximately 750,000.

Both reindeer and caribou rely on lichen as their main food source in the winter. Alaska's lichen supply is threatened as the climate changes due to warmer and drier summers, increased wildfire activity, and extreme weather events. As their common food supply is disappearing, these two subspecies are forced to compete for the shrinking supply of lichen. As a result, some reindeer are migrating away from their traditional herds with caribou, presenting herd management challenges for Native Alaskans and ADFG.

What you can do

  • Between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day, the amount of trash produced in the United States increases by an estimated 25%. This year, consider trying out a new way of celebrating the season by reducing your holiday waste.