Port Heiden Plans to re-establish Alaska Peninsula Reindeer Herding - Alaska Dispatch News via Bristol Bay Times
Port Heiden plans to re-establish Alaska Peninsula reindeer herding
The Bristol Bay Times
January 10, 2015
Residents of Port Heiden will have to wait another month or two for the shipment of 64 reindeer from St. Michael to arrive. The domesticated animals are part of an effort to re-establish reindeer herding on the Alaska Peninsula. Port Heiden hopes to spur economic development and subsistence in the region with the purchase.
According to Johanna Cheemek, president of the St. Michael Village Council, the reindeer slated for live shipment are not in the corral. “They are out on the mainland, or behind the mountains somewhere,” Cheemek said. Until ice in the Norton Sound is more stable, herders will be unable to corral the reindeer.
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Once the reindeer are gathered, they will leave St. Michael by plane -- but not in their usual form. The village sends out packaged meat regularly but has never sent live animals before. St. Michael will also send herders down to train the residents of Port Heiden.
Port Heiden residents helped prepare for this shipment by building steel-framed crates to contain the animals during their flight to the Alaska Peninsula. Adrianne Christensen, director of business development in Port Heiden, said community interest in the reindeer is high; residents, many of whom work as certified Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response employees, are excited about the prospect of herding reindeer.
While bringing reindeer to Port Heiden is an ambitious project, it is not unprecedented. By the early 1900s, reindeer herds -- and herders -- introduced to Alaska from Siberia in 1890 had migrated to the Bristol Bay region.
Though reindeer populations dwindled in the late 1930s, people in Port Heiden still remember the herds and those who tended them. “All of our families have lived here since the beginning of time. The old reindeer herders are our grandparents. We want to bring it back,” said Christensen.
Today, just as in the past, the reindeer are meant to spur economic development on the peninsula and increase the amount of meat available for subsistence. The Port Heiden Village Corporation intends to process the meat locally and sell it at wholesale cost to residents and nearby villages.
Though the demand for reindeer meat is high -- especially for meat shipped to restaurants in the Lower 48 -- Port Heiden hopes to keep the meat local. Village leadership has discussed ways to incorporate the meat in school nutritional programs as well.
The anticipated arrival of the reindeer has raised concerns about how they will interact with local caribou. The Northern Alaska Peninsula caribou herd ranges from the Naknek River to Port Moller, and hunting has been closed in the region since 2006 due to a population decline. The Department of Fish and Game is protecting the herd through an intensive management program designed to reduce the wolf population in the area.
Fish and Game Wildlife Biologist David Crowley explained that the herd is recovering from its population decline. If the population trend of the caribou continues at its present rate, hunting could re-open as soon as 2016 or 2017.
The impact of reindeer on the caribou herd will depend on the number of introduced animals, whether or not they are sterilized, and the containment of reindeer within permitted grazing land.
Screening of reindeer will help prevent the spread of disease from reindeer to caribou, but Crowley pointed out that disease could also be spread from caribou to reindeer.
Adjoining the Port Heiden Village Corporation land is the 3.6 million-acre Alaska Peninsula National Wildlife Refuge. In order to graze the reindeer on refuge land, the village would have to obtain a Special Use Permit from the Refuge Headquarters Office in King Salmon.
Susan Alexander, refuge manager, expressed doubt regarding use of refuge land for grazing reindeer:
“Because of potential impacts to the resources of the refuge, including the inbreeding of reindeer with wild caribou and/or competition for habitat with the caribou herd, it is very unlikely that I would be able to grant a grazing permit.”
Despite potential conflicts regarding land use, the leadership in Port Heiden remains optimistic.
Christensen is confident that there is enough tundra to sustain both caribou and reindeer. She sees the decline of the caribou population in recent years as proof that there will not be too much competition for resources.
“There used to be around 20,000 (caribou) around Port Heiden; now there’s around 3,000.”
When the reindeer arrive, they will be held in the new corral, built by Port Heiden residents. Local landowners have given permission for their property to be used for grazing.
The village is on Bristol Bay Native Corporation land, but is surrounded by both state and federal lands. According to the most recent U.S. census, village land extends roughly 50 square miles. The village does not plan to apply for a Special Use Permit from APNWR at this time.
Plans are in the works for a reindeer breeding program in Port Heiden, and village council members hope to set an example of proactive economic development for other communities in the region.
The new corral and the arrival of reindeer coincide with another community project: the construction of a fish-processing plant, and the purchase of freezers that employ new technology. The CAS (Cells Alive Systems) freezers will keep fish -- and reindeer meat -- fresh without damaging cells. This Japanese technology virtually eliminates freezer burn.
Both the reindeer and fish-processing projects are part of an ongoing effort to improve the quality of food available in the village, but plans do not stop there. “We are hoping to improve the quality of food for everyone in Alaska,” Christensen said.
This story originally appeared in The Bristol Bay Times and has been republished with permission.