How the gift of reindeer presence dwarfs the value of Christmas
Admit it: you have not thought about reindeer even once since Christmas.
Even when you last did think of reindeer, you thought about them in association with Santa Claus, not as either defenders of the Far North ecology or potential victims of global warming, anthrax outbreaks triggered by global warming, plumes of nuclear radiation, and a mysterious illness resembling mad cow disease, occurring oceans and continents away from any other cases.
“Protecting their frozen turf”
“Santa’s reindeer enjoy big headlines just once a year,” recently explained Colorado journalist Bob Berwyn for Inside Climate News, “but, in fact, they’re busy the rest of the time protecting their frozen turf from global warming. As millions of the Arctic ungulates graze the circumpolar tundra, they thin out shrubs, creating shiny clearings that bounce solar radiation back into space.
“Simply put,” Berwyn summarized, ‘the darker, textured leaves of bushes are better at trapping the incoming heat from the sun” than grass.”
Hard science supports Berwyn’s contention.
“If reindeer disappear…”
“The whole northern Scandinavian tundra is grazed by reindeer. What we know is they can have a large effect in all these places. If reindeer disappear, there will be a really negative effect,” Umeå University professor Johan Olofsson told Berwyn.
Based on that discovery, Olofsson and his research partner Mariska te Beest, also of Umeå University, project the possibility of finding similar effects involving grazing wildlife in other habitats, including antelope and zebra roving the remaining African savannas and elk, bison, deer, and pronghorn in the U.S. west.
Beaver with hooves?
Confirming the Norwegian scientists’ hunch would establish that large numbers of grazing wildlife tend to cumulatively regulate climate to suit their dietary preferences.
In other words, grazing species may not only adapt to their ecosystems, but also tend to keep their ecosystems adapted to their presence, much as beavers do by building dams.
Meanwhile, Olofsson, te Beest and colleagues have illustrated with detailed temperature records from 36 sampling sites that, in their own words, reindeer “play an important role in determining the magnitude and timing of further regional and global climate warming.”
“Reindeer grazing matters”
The Olofsson findings were anticipated.
“Reindeer grazing matters,” wrote Alex Dropkin for Pacific Standard in November 2015, after interviewing te Beest, “because the polar regions are the Earth’s vital air-conditioning system. They also buffer the effects of geological-scale climate change. And the ice caps prime the pump of Earth’s ocean circulation system with huge volumes of very cold and heavy sinking water that drives currents for thousands of miles across vast depths.
“At this point, there’s probably no way to avoid a complete summer meltdown of Arctic sea ice some time in the next 50 to 100 years,” Dropkin warned. “But if greenhouse gas emissions are cut to near zero by mid-century, there is a chance that the ice will re-form each winter, when the North Pole tilts away from the sun. And that could help prevent runaway global warming, which could happen if the Arctic tundra releases all the heat-trapping methane that is now frozen in the deep organic ground.”
Newly formed lakes & swamps
If the good news is that abundant reindeer could help to prevent some of the worst projected effects of global warming, the bad news is that the melting Arctic tundra itself presents increasing threats to reindeer survival. Newly formed lakes and swamps, in places last under open water before the Ice Ages, are drowning the browse that the reindeer eat, cutting off migration routes and isolating small herds at possible risk to genetic diversity.
On the Yamal Peninsula of Siberia, reported Tatiana Vasilieva for Greenpeace International, after “a heavy snowfall followed by hot weather,” in 2012, “ and then––all of a sudden––freezing conditions again, the top layer of the tundra turned from snow to ice. Fifty-eight thousand reindeer died of starvation, struggling to get food from under the ice, even damaging their hooves in their desperate attempts to find something to eat.”
Electrocution, radiation & melting tundra
In Norway, meanwhile, in August 2016 about 300 reindeer were electrocuted when a freak electrical storm caught them in standing water.
Radioactivity from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear reactor meltdown near Kyev, Ukraine is still producing cesium traces in reindeer, with unknown effects having occurred as result of more than 30 years of exposure.
Of more immediate concern, melting tundra is also releasing decades-old anthrax spores to kill reindeer––and, somehow, chronic wasting disease has appeared among the Far North reindeer herds, thousands of miles from the known reservoirs of CWD, as the disease is known for short, in the Rocky Mountains of North America, and from the known reservoirs of the better known and closely related mad cow disease in England and western Europe.
Both CWD and mad cow disease are believed to be spread through ingestion of prions, tiny scraps of rogue DNA that are difficult to detect and even more difficult to destroy.
“The world needs more reindeer”
“The world needs more reindeer,” wrote Dropkin. “Sad to say, the recent long-term population trend among reindeer is downward, according to a 2010 report from a biodiversity group working under the auspices of the intergovernmental Arctic Council. Wild reindeer and caribou numbers have dropped about 33% since the late 1990s, from 5.6 million down to 3.8 million.”
Populations of reindeer and caribou, their closely related North American cousins, normally tend to cycle up and down, reflecting a variety of natural factors including climatic cycles and cycles in predation pressure, but this downward trend has been longer and steeper than others on record.
Vaccination worked once
Anthrax outbreaks on the Yamal Peninsula during the abnormally hot summer of 2016 killed a 12-year-old boy, nearly 2,400 domesticated reindeer, and several dogs who fed on the infected carcasses.
“About 1925,” recalled Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases [ProMED] moderator Martin Hugh-Jones, “the government [of the former USSR] started mass vaccination of farm animals and reindeer with a Pasteur-type vaccine, and disposed of [infected] carcasses in permafrost pits. Fifteen years later the disease was last reported in 1941, a very cold year. The mass vaccinations were stopped and for 75 years anthrax did not return,” concluding “by far the most successful anthrax control program I know of,” Hugh-Jones said.
Culling against anthrax scrapped
Government officials initially responded to the 2016 anthrax outbreak by announcing a scheme to cull as many as 250,000 reindeer, but eventually scrapped the scheme in favor of a return to mass vaccination, under pressure from Yamal hunters and herders, who complained that the reindeer population was already dangerously depleted.
The Arctic on April 26, 2017 reported that “The Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Area’s reserve of vaccines — about 900,000 doses — will be enough to inoculate the entire local reindeer population of 730,000, the YNAA official website reports.”
Along with vaccinating reindeer against anthrax, The Arctic said, “the YNAA veterinary service is planning to microchip all reindeer, whose ear tags will contain an animal’s sex and age data and identify its owner and grazing area.”
Said Hugh-Jones on ProMED, “If Ted Turner can microchip every one of his bison on multiple ranches, the folk in Siberia should also succeed. And the vaccination should provide adequate cover during the summer anthrax season. But one has to be careful that the herding and vaccinating,” Hugh-Jones cautioned, “does not induce abortions in the pregnant female reindeer.”
No vaccination exists for CWD
The prognosis is much less optimistic for the reindeer of the remote and rugged Nordfjella mountains of Norway, where a sickly young reindeer found by biologists on March 15, 2016 turned out to be suffering from advanced CWD. Two other infected reindeer were found.
Because CWD is not a virus, no vaccination can be developed to prevent it. Nor is there any known cure for it, or any known preventative measure other than ensuring that animals are not infected.
Norwegian minister for agriculture and food Jon Georg Dale in late March 2017 authorized hunters to kill the entire Nordfjella reindeer herd of about 2,000 individuals, nearly 6% of the total Norwegian wild reindeer population.
The wisdom of trying to cull CWD out of the Nordfjella herd was questioned by ProMED moderator Tam Garland, of Texas A&M University, who warned that CWD has never been conclusively culled out of any wild ungulate herd in the U.S., and by several other longtime ProMED participants, including ANIMALS 24-7 editor Merritt Clifton, recipient of the 2010 ProMED Award for Excellence in Outbreak Reporting on the Internet.
“Deer, elk, and reindeer commonly gnaw the bones of their own species as a source of calcium, especially in extreme habitats,” Clifton pointed out to the 60,000 ProMED daily readers on April 15, 2017.
“The prions associated with chronic wasting disease, mad cow disease, etc. can remain in skull and spinal tissue for many years, capable of being ingested by deer, elk, or reindeer gnawing those bones, who may thereby infect themselves.
“Practically an invitation to spread”
“Inviting hunters to kill 2000 reindeer in rugged territory accordingly strikes me,” Clifton said, “as practically an invitation to spread any prionic disease they may be carrying, since someone would have to be able to remove 100% of the carcasses to be sure the remaining skulls and spines would never be gnawed.
“The non-retrieval rate for US hunters shooting deer in a legal manner runs around 5%,” Clifton noted, “largely because wounded deer often run for some distance before they drop, and sometimes survive for weeks, while their tracks and spoor are covered by snow. It isn’t likely that Norwegian hunters do any better, especially in areas with far fewer roads.
“A 5% non-retrieval rate would mean 100 potentially infected carcasses left in the habitat. Perhaps only 2-3 of those carcasses will be of reindeer whose skulls and spines contain prions, but any skeleton may be visited and gnawed by dozens of other animals,” Clifton finished.
Crows carry prions
Offered Ferret Health List editor Sukie Crandall, “There are currently at least two studies showing infective prions in the bodily waste of crows,” who commonly scavenge the carcasses of ungulates and other species,” including “Prion Remains Infectious after Passage through Digestive System of American Crows” (2012) and “Could avian scavengers translocate infectious prions to disease-free areas initiating new foci of chronic wasting disease?” (2013).
Warned several of the authors of the crow studies, together with other prionic disease researchers, in “CWD prions remain infectious after passage through the digestive system of coyotes” (2015):
“CWD contamination can occur residually in the environment via soil, water, and forage following deposition of bodily fluids such as urine, saliva, and feces, or by the decomposition of carcasses. Recent work has indicated that plants may even take up prions into the stems and leaves. When a carcass or gut pile is present in the environment, a large number of avian and mammalian species visit and consume the carrion.
“Natural cross-species CWD transmission has not been documented. However, passage of infectious prion material has been observed in the feces of crows,” while “Coyotes can pass infectious prions via their feces for at least three days post ingestion, demonstrating that mammalian scavengers could contribute to the translocation and contamination of CWD in the environment.”
Though there are no coyotes in Norway, there are abundant foxes––both European red foxes and Arctic foxes––who have similar scavenging habits.
“A major question concerns the origin of CWD in Norway,” acknowledged five collaborators in the August 2016 Veterinary Research paper “First case of chronic wasting disease in Europe in a Norwegian free-ranging reindeer.”
Imported deer the source?
“Importation of CWD infected deer could be the source of infection,” the co-authors acknowledged, “as was the case in South Korea,” where four infected deer were found between 2000 and 2010. All of the deer involved in the South Korean cases were descended from 125 deer imported from Canada in 1994 and 1999.
“However, Norway has strict legislation and enforcement regarding the importation of live animals and importation of cervids is not allowed,” the Veterinary Research paper continued, while noting that “Finland’s white tailed deer population, estimated at 60,000 animals, originated from one import from North America in 1934 of four does and one buck.”
Of that population, however, Finn Food Safety Authority researcher Sirkka-Liisa Korpenfelt told the Veterinary Research co-authors, 643 deer have been tested for CWD at various times, none of whom were infected.
“It has been speculated,” the Veterinary Research paper acknowledged, “that the origin of CWD in North American cervids may be associated with [the prionic sheep disease] classical scrapie,” believed to be the original source of mad cow disease, “because some scrapie-infected sheep were penned together with deer at a research center between 1968 and 1971.”
However, “Norway has had a scrapie surveillance program in place since 1997,” the co-authors added, “with a total of 264,000 small ruminants analyzed. Few cases of classical scrapie have been diagnosed in Norway and the last case was identified in 2009. There are no reports of classical
scrapie within the range of the Nordfjella reindeer sub-population.”
Concluded the Veterinary Research paper co-authoers, “A plausible alternative to the occurrence of CWD in Europe could be that a cervid developed a genetic or spontaneous transmissible spongiform encephalopathy [symptomatic of prionic diseases] which subsequently spread to other cervids. As cervids may eat or gnaw on remnants of carcasses, we may speculate that there could have been an incident more or less analogous to the kuru epidemic on Papua New Guinea, which is suggested to have started with ritual cannibalism of an individual with sporadic Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease.”
Kuru and Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, associated with consumption of nerve and brain tissue from cattle afflicted with mad cow disease, are the two prionic diseases known to occur in humans.