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Identification and history of N. Alaskan Caribou Herds





This project investigates the identity and history of caribou herds and domestic reindeer on Alaska's North Slope, with a focus on the Teshekpuk Lake caribou herd. Little is known about the Teshekpuk herd over the long-term, though local observers suggest that it may contain descendents of historic domestic reindeer while biologists have wondered whether the herd arose in the last century or has existed longer. Likewise, there is a need to understand the identity of the Teshekpuk herd in relation to other North Slope herds, so that management is based on sound knowledge of the population structure (or connectivity) of North Slope herds.


This project integrates methods from biology and the social sciences to address a set of interdisciplinary research questions:


  • What is the genetic identity of the Teshekpuk herd relative to neighboring herds and domestic reindeer?
  • To what extent does the genetic population structure of North Slope herds match the herd concept used for monitoring and management?
  • How are North Slope caribou populations structured over space, and what geographic variables may be responsible?
  • What historical factors (long-term fluctuations in herd size and range, interactions with reindeer, etc.) have influenced the ways in which Teshekpuk caribou are identified by biologists and caribou users?

We are addressing these questions through two main research activities:


  1. Conducting a population genetic study of North Slope caribou herds, including domestic reindeer---we primarily analyze DNA samples from collared caribou so that geographic information can be factors into our analysis of genetic population structure.
  2. Conducting a historical study of reindeer herding and reindeer-caribou interactions near Barrow, Alaska (in the current range of the Teshekpuk herd). This involves recording oral history interviews with elders, both former reindeer herders and long-time caribou hunters, as well as searching archives and published sources for historical information.





Oral history interviews have been conducted with most of the former reindeer herders living in Barrow. Interview participants described how herders and hunters can distinguish reindeer from caribou based on a number of observed morphological and behavioral characteristics. Participants also gave numerous reasons to believe that caribou in the Barrow area may be part reindeer, though observations and reasoning differed widely from person to person.  Interviews also provided a rich set of stories about the role of reindeer herding in Barrow's history, though that aspect of the research will not be a major focus of the project. Archival sources have provided historical information on reindeer herding, caribou abundance and distribution, and the early days of biological monitoring and herd "discovery" on the North Slope.
For the genetic component, a panel of microsatellite genetic markers has been selected that has the resolution and statistical power to distinguish caribou and reindeer, and to detect differences between herds when they exist. Blood and tissue sample collection is nearly complete and laboratory analysis using microsatellites is underway. We hope to have some preliminary results to share at the 2009 CARMA meeting.






Caribou are an important subsistence resource for communities on Alaska's North Slope, yet increasing industrial development and climate change are likely to cause significant changes to caribou ranges in the near future. A better understanding of herd connectivity and caribou-reindeer interactions through time will provide needed insight into the dynamics of caribou populations and their capacity to react and adapt to rapid change.


The four caribou herds on Alaska's North Slope are considered management units, yet the extent to which the herd concept approximates the actual population structure is unknown. Caribou, like all wildlife species, need to be managed at the population level---our study will make this possible by providing empirical knowledge of the relationship between recognized herds and demographically independent populations.


Integrating empirical information from our genetic research with geographic and historical information, and local knowledge of hunters and herders, will provide caribou herd managers with a better understanding of herd identity and the significance of the herd-based concept for managing caribou populations.







Karen Hibbard-Rode Mager, PhD. Candidate
Department of Biology and Wildlife
Resilience and Adaptation Program
University of Alaska Fairbanks
Fairbanks, AK 99775
Phone: (907) 474-7603
karen.mager 'at'


Dr. Kris Hundertmark, Assistant Professor
Institute of Arctic Biology
Department of Biology and Wildlife
University of Alaska Fairbanks
Fairbanks, AK 99775
Phone: (907) 474-7159
kris.hundertmark 'at'