1963: An Arctic Reindeer Population Crash

  • Date: 16/12/18
  • David R. Klein, Alaska Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit, University of Alaska, College

The reindeer population on St. Matthew Island increased rapidly to a peak which was followed by a crash. This pattern has been observed among other animal populations under varying conditions, but most often among introduced species on islands.

Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus), introduced to St. Matthew Island in 1944, increased from 29 animals at that time to 6,000 in the summer of 1963 and underwent a crash die-off the following winter to less than 50 animals. In 1957, the body weight of the reindeer was found to exceed that of reindeer in domestic herds by 24 53 percent among females and 46 61 percent among males. The population also responded to the high quality and quantity of the forage on the island by increasing rapidly due to a high birth rate and low mortality. By 1963, the density of the reindeer on the island had reached 46.9 per square mile and ratios of fawns and yearlings to adult cows had dropped from 75 and 45 percent respectively, in 1957 to 60 and 26 percent in 1963. Average body weights had decreased from 1957 by 38 percent for adult females and 43 percent for adult males and were comparable to weights of reindeer in domestic herds. Lichens had been completely eliminated as a significant component of the winter diet. Sedges and grasses were expanding into sites previously occupied by lichens. In the late winter of 196364, in association with extreme snow accumulation, virtually the entire population of 6,000 reindeer died of starvation. With one known exception, all of the surviving reindeer (42 in 1966) were females. The pattern of reindeer population growth and die-off on St. Matthew Island has been observed on other island situations with introduced animals and is believed to be a product of the limited development of ecosystems and the associated deficiency of potential population-regulating factors on islands. Food supply, through its interaction with climatic factors, was the dominant population regulating mechanism for reindeer on St. Matthew Island.

St. Matthew Island, 128 square miles in area and located in the Bering Sea Wildlife Refuge in the north central Bering Sea (Fig. 1), supports a poorly developed land fauna. Native land mammals are restricted to a vole (Microtus abbreviatus) and the arctic fox ( Alopex lagopus ), although a resident population of polar bears (Thalarctos maritimus) existed there in Recent times (Elliot 1882). The reindeer on St. Matthew Island were the result of the release of 24 females and 5 males on August 20, 1944, by the U. S. Coast Guard (Klein 1959). Shortly afterwards, the Coast Guard loran station on the island was abandoned and the island has been uninhabited since then. Specimens taken for study purposes and those shot by Coast Guard personnel as a recreational pursuit have been the only harvest from the herd. With the exception of 10 in 1966, these were all taken during 1957-63 and totaled 105 animals. This paper reports on the population dynamics and range interrelationships of this island reindeer herd from the time of introduction through its rapid increase and crash die-off until July, 1966.

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