Case study of interacting changes: Saami reindeer herders

Observed and projected increases in temperature and precipitation and changes in the timing of the seasons affect reindeer herding in numerous ways. Increases in the frequency of rain on snow, and in periods of winter melting, result in the formation of ice crust layers that make forage less accessible. Increasing autumn temperatures might lead to a later start of the period with snow cover. Rising temperatures and precipitation could increase the frequency of snow falling on unfrozen ground. An increased number, density, and distribution of birch trees in grazing areas has already begun to decrease the availability of forage plants for reindeer in winter. Shifts of forest vegetation into tundra areas are likely to further reduce traditional pasture areas.

The characteristic seasonal pattern of moving herds between winter and summer pastures reflects the herders’ knowledge of seasonal changes in the availability of key resources such as forage and water. In the warm winters of the 1930s, for example, when conditions were sometimes difficult owing to heavy precipitation, herds were moved to the coast earlier than normal in the spring. Similarly, the movement of herds from poorer to better grazing areas, including the “trading of good snow" by neighboring herders, reflects thorough knowledge of forage conditions. In every case, the success of the herders is contingent upon the freedom to move.

A variety of factors, including government policies in the past few decades, have constrained the ability of Saami reindeer herders to respond to and cope with climate warming and other changes. One important stress has come from the encroachment of roads and other infrastructure on traditional reindeer grazing lands. Another stress comes from conflicting objectives among parties. Norway's mountain pastures are an important resource for herders, but pastureland management is complicated by the presence of predators such as lynx, wolf, and wolverine, which are a major threat to the survival of reindeer calves, but are protected by wildlife conservation efforts.

Other changes come from laws that emphasize meat production, encouraging active breeders and discouraging small herds. These laws favor larger herds, which have thus increased from around 100 to 700 animals. These laws also favor herds dominated by females and calves (the calves are slaughtered for meat) and have resulted in a change in structure from a traditional herd consisting of about 40% bulls, to herds with only 5% bulls. In traditional Saami herding practices, the bulls are important because their superior ability to dig through deep or poor quality snow make forage plants available to the entire herd. The reduced proportion of bulls may become more of a problem in the future if snow conditions altered by climate change make grazing even more difficult for smaller reindeer.

Source & © ACIA Impacts of a Warming Arctic: Arctic Climate Impact Assessment  (2004),
 Key Finding #10, p.108

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