A bull caribou, or reindeer. Both males and females have antlers. (United States Fish and Wildlife Service)
Reindeer – also called caribou – are ubiquitous in the world’s northern latitudes, but the populations closest to the North Pole are dwindling because of climate change. Now there is a push to list the large deer as endangered. Jeff Flocken, the DC Office Director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, tells host Bruce Gellerman what’s at stake.
GELLERMAN: Well, 'tis the season...
[MUSIC: Ray Charles “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer” from A Jazz A Blues Christmas (Putumayo Records 2008).]
GELLERMAN: Rudolph had a hard life at the start, but his leadership abilities shined through.
[MUSIC: Ray Charles “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer” from A Jazz A Blues Christmas (Putumayo Records 2008). "Then how the reindeer loved him, as they shouted out with glee. They said, 'Rudolph, you read nosed reindeer, you'll go down in history!'"]
GELLERMAN: Sadly Rudolph could soon be history. Some populations of reindeer, also known as caribou, certainly don't have a bright future. That’s according to Jeff Flocken. He's head of U.S. policy for the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
FLOCKEN: These are the ones that people probably have in their mind when they thinking of Santa’s reindeer because they’re closest to the North Pole. The two species that we’re most concerned with: the peary and the dolphin union populations are the northernmost caribou, and they’re found in northern Canada on Victoria Island, and other islands up there at the top.
Peary caribou are smaller and whiter than other reindeer, adaptations that help them survive in the northern most latitudes. (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration)
GELLERMAN: I’ve got to ask you, do they have red noses?
FLOCKEN: (Laughs.) None that I’ve seen. The species that we work with… what we’re talking about today, like the peary, are probably smaller than most people think of in terms of caribou. They’re very light colored, kind of white, with a dense fur. And the dolphin union ones are a little bit darker, they have the velvet covering their antlers, they’re beautiful animals, but the glowing nose? I haven’t seen that.
GELLERMAN: (Laughs.) So now we’ve got these two populations, one’s called union dolphin and the other is called peary, right?
GELLERMAN: And, they’ve got problems!
FLOCKEN: They’re in serious trouble. Well, caribou across the world, they’re all found in the northern hemisphere in these cold temperatures, are declining. They think an average decline of about 60 percent from historic highs.
And, these in the most northern part are even in more trouble. During the last few winters, they’ve found mass die-offs of the peary ones in particular. Up to 84 percent of the population they think to have been lost.
GELLERMAN: Why is this happening, do we know?
FLOCKEN: It’s climate change. The temperature, the weather and the landscape are all changing in the arctic. So, in particular, with this species - they’re a browsing species - and they need to have access to the different plants and native shrubs that grow in the tundra where they are in the winter.
So usually in past times, there’s kind of a light, fluffy snow that falls in that region, but now, because of the temperature, they tend of have a heavy, icy rain. So, what’s happening is, it’s freezing over these plants so the reindeer can’t access them for food. What’s happening - they’re starving or they’re spending too much energy trying to find food. As a result starvation, malnutrition, low-reproductive rates, and that’s causing these die-offs.
GELLERMAN: Wow. Are they endangered?
FLOCKEN: Yes, well, that’s a great question. In Canada, the Species at Risk Act, which is equivalent to our own Endangered Species Act, peary are listed as endangered. They’re considered a species in imminent danger of extinction and the dolphin union are considered a species of special concern. What the International Fund for Animal Welfare, where I work is doing is, we petitioned in September 2009 to get the U.S. to list the species as endangered or threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
GELLERMAN: If Canada is taking care of this, why does the United States have to get involved?
FLOCKEN: The U.S. Endangered Species Act, which is considered one of the best laws in the world for protected species, has the ability to list domestic or foreign species. Currently, we have about 2,000 species on the list of which 607 are foreign. In this case, paying attention to the fact that climate change is most likely going to be the leading driver of extinction for species in our lifetime for species.
And every time a species like polar bear or caribou or the ice-dependent seals or Pacific walrus is continuing to decline from climate change, we’re hoping that the more attention that goes through this, the more people change their habits. And the more that the international community tries to address the problem of human climate change.
GELLERMAN: So, by putting them on the Endangered Species List - the United States Endangered Species List - you could perhaps offer them protection, but against climate change? How would that work?
FLOCKEN: Well that's, you know, it's a good question. The U.S. Endangered Species Act, the Obama Administration has chosen to follow the Bush Administration’s lead and is not using that as a way to regulate the impact of climate change due to actions here in the U.S.
But every time that we learn more about different species that are declining because of climate change, it opens up that opportunity to bring back that discussion. To try to have international laws that will really start addressing meaningfully the things that we are doing to contribute to climate change and global warming.
GELLERMAN: So, the Obama Administration is not using the Endangered Species Act to respond to the affects of… the impacts of climate change.
FLOCKEN: Correct. They will not regulate carbon-emitting processes because of the Endangered Species Act.
GELLERMAN: There are going to be a lot of people who are going to celebrate Christmas and they’re going to have reindeer on their lawns, you know, they’re going to be singing Rudolph, and I’m wondering how many of them appreciate the fact that these animals are so endangered.
FLOCKEN: Well, what we hope to do is that they think about what they do, and instead of driving to the local grocery store, maybe they’ll walk. They’ll think about getting more fuel-efficient cars, the next time they purchase one. And, making individual choices that will ensure that reindeer stay for the future - that Santa has a full team of reindeer driving across the sky. And, also of course, that decision-makers in governments really start looking hard at what’s causing climate change, and help species like reindeer, polar bears, certain whales, arctic foxes… all these animals that are being impacted by a warming climate.
GELLERMAN: Jeff Flocken is head of U.S. policy for the International Fund for Animal Welfare. Jeff, thank you so very much and Merry Christmas.
FLOCKEN: Thanks you and Merry Christmas to you too, Bruce!
Living on Earth wants to hear from you!
P.O. Box 990007
Boston, MA, USA 02199
E-mail: [email protected]
Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.
Major funding for Living on Earth is provided by the National Science Foundation.
Kendeda Fund, furthering the values that contribute to a healthy planet.
The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.
Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an autographed copy of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary hummingbird photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.