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Home* News and Stories → Spits­ber­gen-rein­de­er: new and com­ple­te popu­la­ti­on count

Spits­ber­gen-rein­de­er: new and com­ple­te popu­la­ti­on count

The Spits­ber­gen-rein­de­er, also known as Sval­bard-rein­de­er, has seen a lot of ups and downs sin­ce it came to Spits­ber­gen from the Rus­si­an Arc­tic thousands of years ago. It beca­me a sub-spe­ci­es on its own which is not found any­whe­re out­side Sval­bard. Nevertheless, it was hun­ted almost to extinc­tion until it was final­ly pro­tec­ted by the Nor­we­gi­an government in 1925 – soon after the Spits­ber­gen Trea­ty had given Nor­way the power to do this. Esti­ma­tes of the rein­de­er popu­la­ti­on from the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry are a mere 1000 ani­mals – for the who­le Spits­ber­gen archi­pe­la­go!

Spitsbergen-reindeer: strong males, Straumsland

Spits­ber­gen-rein­de­er: two strong males. Straum­s­land, east Spits­ber­gen.

Spits­ber­gen rein­de­er can disper­se, and while doing so, they can cross gla­ciers, solid fjord ice and even drif­ting sea ice. Other­wi­se, they would obvious­ly never have made it to Spits­ber­gen in the first place. But as long as they are hap­py in a given area, they tend to stay whe­re they are, so it can take many deca­des until they re-popu­li­se remo­te are­as whe­re they beca­me extinct in the past.

The local popu­la­ti­ons are sub­ject to strong dyna­mics. Wea­ther extre­mes are an important fac­tor: in bad years, when strong rain­fall on snow-cove­r­ed ground in the win­ter with sub­se­quent free­zing covers the tun­dra with a lay­er of ice, many rein­de­er can star­ve to death later when the fat reser­ves are used up and the vege­ta­ti­on is still under ice. This is espe­cial­ly the case when the popu­la­ti­on is actual­ly alrea­dy too big for the area. In Advent­da­len near Lon­gye­ar­by­en, the popu­la­ti­on has dou­bled in the last 10 years.

Other rein­de­er may die during acci­dents in steep and slip­pe­ry ter­rain after win­ter rain­fall. In the win­ter of 2018-2019, several rein­de­er died in the vicini­ty of Lon­gye­ar­by­en, whe­re strong rain­fall occur­red in Decem­ber. Some had obvious­ly fal­len down steep slo­pes, while have pro­bab­ly star­ved to death later. In such cases, local popu­la­ti­ons may expe­ri­ence a signi­fi­cant decre­a­se. If such epi­so­des hap­pen several times over sub­se­quent years, it may even lead to local exc­tinc­tion. The event of the 2018-19 did, howe­ver, not have signi­fi­cant con­se­quen­ces for the local popu­la­ti­on.

dead Spitsbergen-rindeer

Dead Spits­ber­gen-rein­de­er at Ope­raf­jel­let, east of Lon­gye­ar­by­en:
the exact cau­se of death is unknown, but eit­her fal­ling down from a steep, icy slo­pe or star­va­ti­on are likely.

On the other hand, the popu­la­ti­on may incre­a­se again quick­ly in good years. In spring 2017, for examp­le, rein­de­er in Advent­da­len incre­a­sed quick­ly again in num­bers due to favoura­ble con­di­ti­ons.

Next to wea­ther fluc­tua­tions, cli­ma­te chan­ge is an important fac­tor on a lon­ger time sca­le, moving from mon­ths and sin­gle years (wea­ther) up to deca­des (cli­ma­te): an incre­a­sing fre­quen­cy of strong win­ter rain­fall may make life more dif­fi­cult for rein­de­er, while more luxu­rious growth of tun­dra vege­ta­ti­on can pro­vi­de more food, sup­por­ting a big­ger popu­la­ti­on. Cur­r­ent­ly it seems as if Spits­ber­gen rein­de­er bene­fit from incre­a­sed vege­ta­ti­on growth at least in some are­as. On top of that comes the popu­la­ti­on reco­very after the ban on hun­ting in 1925, a deve­lo­p­ment that is pro­bab­ly still going on as rein­de­er con­ti­nue to move back to are­as whe­re the­re were no rein­de­er in deca­des during the 20th cen­tu­ry.

It beco­mes evi­dent that rein­de­er popu­la­ti­on dyna­mics are a com­plex mat­ter which is influ­en­ced by a num­ber of fac­tors. Rea­son enough to have a good look at the cur­rent popu­la­ti­on. Ear­lier esti­ma­tes whe­re rather frag­men­tal in space and time. Now, a team of sci­en­tists made a pro­per cen­sus for the who­le Sval­bard archi­pe­la­go. Pro­per counts whe­re com­ple­ted with distance sam­pling of tran­sects whe­re necessa­ry to cover lar­ge and most­ly rather inac­ces­si­ble are­as. The group around bio­lo­gist Mat­hil­de Le Moul­lec has now publis­hed their results in The Jour­nal of Wild­life Manage­ment.

Spitsbergen-reindeer, Krossfjord

Unusual­ly lar­ge group of rein­de­er in Krossfjord, an area whe­re rein­de­er did not exist during deca­des or even cen­tu­ries.

The key mes­sa­ge: the total popu­la­ti­on of rein­de­er in Sval­bard is now esti­ma­ted at a good 22,000 ani­mals. The “exact” num­ber is 22,435, with a 95% con­fi­dence inter­val from 21,452 to 23,425. In 2009, the num­ber was still esti­ma­ted bet­ween 10,000 and 11,000. Today’s lar­ger num­ber may at least part­ly have to do with an actual­ly incre­a­sed popu­la­ti­on, inclu­ding an incre­a­se in popu­la­ti­on becau­se of reco­very from past exces­si­ve hun­ting, as a con­se­quence of pro­tec­tion in 1925, but the bet­ter qua­li­ty and the more com­ple­te spa­ti­al approach are cer­tain­ly also likely to be a signi­fi­cant fac­tor influ­en­cing the now updated num­bers.

Today, rein­de­er are even found again in remo­te are­as as Kong Karls Land, whe­re they did not occur over lon­ger peri­ods, alt­hough they exis­ted the­re befo­re Euro­peans star­ted to fre­quent Spits­ber­gen in 1596, when Wil­lem Bar­entsz dis­co­ve­r­ed the islands.

The popu­la­ti­on den­si­ty varies a lot bet­ween dif­fe­rent are­as. Vege­ta­ti­on is belie­ved to be a key fac­tor. In some are­as, they may be up to 10 rein­de­er per squa­re kilo­met­re – local­ly, even more – while one ani­mal will need the same area or more on its own to find enough food in spar­se­ly vege­ta­ted are­as such as the polar desert land­s­cape of Nord­aus­t­land.

The recent stu­dy was publis­hed on 04 Octo­ber: Mat­hil­de Le Moul­lec et al (2019), A Cen­tu­ry of Con­ser­va­ti­on: The Ongo­ing Reco­very of Sval­bard Rein­de­er. In: The Jour­nal of Wild­life Manage­ment, Vol. 83, 1676-1686.

By the way, my new book is in print and it can now be orde­red 🙂 it is a pho­to book with the tit­le “Nor­we­gens ark­ti­scher Nor­den (1): Spitz­ber­gen – vom Polar­licht bis zur Mit­ter­nachts­son­ne”, with Ger­man text Click here for fur­ther details!

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last modification: 2019-11-06 · copyright: Rolf Stange
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