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December 23 2012

Where’s Rudolph? Inside the Decline of Alaska’s Caribou

As Christmas approaches, young eyes will be focused on the sky searching for a glimpse of Santa and his reindeer—or are they caribou? The differences between the two are mostly taxonomic—both are subspecies of Rangifer tarandus, but Jim Dau of Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game is quite familiar with the subtleties of the antlered cousins.

Dau studies the Western Arctic caribou herd, among the largest in the world at 300,000 strong, that ranges over an area about 143,000 square miles in northwestern Alaska. While those figures might sound impressive, the caribou population has been steadily declining since 2003, when the herd peaked at nearly half a million. The decline is a source of concern for biologists studying the trend’s effects on the food chain, as well as for the more than 40 native villages that rely on the animals for food and as a cultural centerpiece.

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