Life on different banks (Alaska and Chukotka)

March 18, 2014 • Alena GerasimovaBlog, Challenges, Reindeer

At the conference “Days of Beringia” that was held the last time in 2013, the participants concerned the fact that today there is less connection between Chukotka and Alaska, contacts between related indigenous peoples of the two countries have weakened. It was stressed that even in the difficult 90’s connection were much closer, that cultural exchange was carried out regularly enough.  And one of the decisions of the conference was to have conferences through TV and radio service (since today there is no means for regular trips overseas).  It was scheduled to have twelve of suchlike conferences in 2014.
About contacts
Notably, the themes of these distance meetings were connected with problems most closely related to both Russian residents and those living overseas. I.e. common problems for the Bering Strait region will be discussed. Thus in particular, during the year it is planned to discuss questions concerned climate change, development of the Arctic resources, energy, communication links, food security, transport, kinship, education, culture and health.
Heads of municipalities, rural communities, chiefs of relevant departments, agricultural enterprises, and members of NGOs from both countries are expected to participate in discussions. In short, all those who are interested in further development of human and cultural relationships between indigenous peoples of Chukotka and Alaska.

First reindeer descent (LANDING)
TV and radioconference in February was dedicated to reindeer husbandry in the North. More precisely, it was about the possibility of Chukchi reindeer herders to provide assistance for Alaskan reindeer herders. It should be noted that there was no traditional reindeer husbandry in Alaska . Domestic reindeer were first imported to Alaska from Chukotka in 1891, on the Seward Peninsula. The reason was the reduction of reindeer number (caribou), which were hunted by indigenous population. It was assumed that domestic reindeer husbandry will become a stable source of food and prevent hunger of indigenous peoples on Alaska. In the beginning there were specially hired Siberian reindeer herders, and later, Sami reindeer herders, who taught indigenous people of Alaska to work with reindeer.
By 1932 the number of reindeer in Alaska has reached 641 thousand, of which about 130 thousand were grazing on the Seward Peninsula. However, since 1933 the rapid growth in number changed to sharp decline of number of reindeer, the cause of which is considered to be an overload of pastures and the transition to free grazing of animals. By 1950 there were only 25 thousand reindeer in Alsaka. Between 1950 and 1992 the number of reindeer began to recover and increased to approximately 41 thousand, but then declined again to 19 thousand in 1999. According to estimates for 2001 there were only 9,000 reindeer on the Seward Peninsula. According to data made by Alaskan, today the number is 20 thousand. Currently, this industry is in a state of severe crisis.

Challenges in Alaska
Although the current situation on Alaska is characterized by reduction in the number of reindeer and consequently in the production of reindeer meat, still there is potential for reindeer meat market in Alaska. Reindeer meat is considered as ecologically clean Arctic product and is in great demand at high profile restaurants in Alaska and in other states. There is not enough reindeer meat on market to satisfy the demand, and reindeer meat it imported from Canada. Since the distance from the places of meat production to markets is huge, transport costs are the main reason of high price for reindeer meat. Besides, the lack of infrastructure, slaughtering houses and port equipment on the islands, is keeping under the increase of meat production. If these obstacles are overcome reindeer husbandry can really contribute to the economic growth of indigenous communities.
In Alaska reindeer husbandry has a number of problems connected with law. First of all it is important to note the juridical differences between wild and domestic reindeer. Caribou as well as other wild animals is government property. According to the law, caribou hunting is possible only for sport or for the needs of the indigenous population. Selling meat of wild animals is completely prohibited in the U.S. Domestic reindeer, even if they are actually live as wild animals, they have their owners who can sell their meat on the market.
Another feature about Alaska is that reindeer herders here do not own pastures. In order to herd reindeer each of them must obtain a special permit for use of pasture site (so-called “permitted area”) on land belonging to other owners.
The law “On the reindeer husbandry in Alaska” (1937) is the main document regulating this industry, which allows to own reindeer only for indigenous peoples of Alaska. Now this law is actually under threat since private companies began to import living reindeer from Canada to use their meat for sale. This is not technically against the law, which gives indigenous peoples of Alaska exclusive right for reindeer husbandry within the state of Alaska, but not on import of reindeer.

Step forwards
At the radioconference in February the president of Association of Reindeer Herders on Seward Peninsula Tom Grey noted that with the arrival of caribou to the peninsula also came wolves. Invention of caribou and wolves actually ruined domestic reindeer husbandry on the peninsula. Today indigenous peoples are trying to restore the number of reindeer. According to them, one of the main problems is funding. In order to deal with it is necessary to transfer available funds from one program to another, which is not easy to do. But, according to local people, the main hope is that financial support will come from the state budget or from the federal budget. The additional difficulties are caused by legal aspects of reindeer husbandry, these questions are often connected with different agencies, including the Park Service, Land Management, Wild Animals Office and others. And in order to lead reindeer husbandry on a particular space, indigenous peoples have to get permissions from each of these agencies. Tom Grey stressed that reindeer herders managed to place their existing herds in unique areas where it is less dominance of caribou and wolves.

There is one herd from which a revival of Alaskan reindeer husbandry in general can be started. The problem s only in gathering all interested people and in funding. Twice a year reindeer herders from Alaska meet with representatives of all agencies involved in different aspects of reindeer herding. There are a number of programs related to reindeer herding, they gradually are carrying out. But it is not enough. Therefore reindeer herders from Alaska approached to Chukchi reindeer herders for professional help, asking to share their experiences.   The participants of the radioconference decided to find a way for Chukcki experts to go to Alaska to assess the situation  with reindeer herding, and then to develop a program of actions to help Alaskan reindeer herders. In the near future should be created expert groups and the actions of the Reindeer Herders Union of Chukotka and Alaskan Reindeer Herders Association should be coordinated.
Be reminded, that in the 90’s Choktka closely faced the problem of losing reindeer population. The scale is comparable with the current situation in Alaska. However, one should also bear in mind that Chukotka managed to rectify the situation and continues to work on increasing the number of reindeer, on systematic approach in the veterinary service and personnel matters. It is not easy, but with the help of the Russian Federation represented by the district government the problems in this challenging industry is been gradually solved.
Therefore, the main hopes of Alaskan reindeer herders must lay on their government, they should achieve concrete and serious digits in funding. And then the help of Chukchi reindeer herders in professional organization of work with reindeer will fall into fertile ground.

Meanwhile

Reindeer husbandry on the Seward Peninsula in under threat: through the main grazing lands of Alaska located on the peninsula, annually migrate a huge population of caribou (about 450 thousand). For this reason pasture resources are running low, and it will take many years to restore them. In addition, a huge herd of caribou attracts predators, but the most serious is the problem of ‘withdrawal’ domestic reindeer by wild reindeer. In the case of mixing of caribou and reindeer, domesticated reindeer go migrating with caribou. All attempts to prevent caribou herds no reindeer pastures were unsuccessful.

Source: Крайний Север

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