The reindeer is a widespread and numerous species in the northern Holarctic, being present in both tundra and taiga (boreal forest). Originally, the reindeer was found in Scandinavia, eastern Europe, Russia , Mongolia, and northern China north of the 50th latitude. In North America, it was found in Canada , Alaska (United States ), and the northern contiguous USA from Washington to Maine. In the 19th century, it was apparently still present in southern Idaho. It also occurred naturally on Sakhalin, Greenland, and probably even in historical times in Ireland. During the late Pleistocene era, reindeer were found further south, such as at Nevada, Tennessee , and Alabama in North America and Spain in Europe. Today, wild reindeer have disappeared from many areas within this large historical range, especially from the southern parts, where it vanished almost everywhere. Populations of wild reindeer are still found in Norway , Finland , Siberia, Greenland, Alaska, and Canada . Domesticated reindeer are mostly found in northern Fennoscandia and Russia, with a herd of approximately 150–170 semi-domesticated reindeer living around the Cairngorms region in Scotland. The last remaining wild tundra reindeer in Europe are found in portions of southern Norway . A few reindeer from Norway were introduced to the South Atlantic island of South Georgia in the beginning of the 20th century. The South Georgian reindeer totaled some estimated 2600 animals in two distinct herds separated by glaciers. Although the flag and the coat of arms of the territory contain an image of a reindeer, they were eradicated from 2013 to 2017 because of the environmental damage they caused. Around 4000 reindeer have been introduced into the French sub-Antarctic archipelago of Kerguelen Islands. East Iceland has a small herd of about 2500–3000 animals. Caribou and reindeer numbers have fluctuated historically, but many herds are in decline across their range. This global decline is linked to climate change for northern, migratory caribou and reindeer herds and industrial disturbance of caribou habitat for sedentary, non-migratory herds.
There are three large herds of migratory tundra wild reindeer in central Siberia's Yakutia region: the Lena-Olenek, Yana-Indigirka and Sundrun herds. While the population of the Lena-Olenek herd is stable, the others are declining.
Further east again, the Chukotka herd is also in decline. In 1971, there were 587,000 animals. They recovered after a severe decline in 1986, to only 32,200 individuals, but their numbers fell again. According to Kolpashikov, by 2009 there were less than 70,000.
There are four living subspecies of the reindeer (Rangifer tarandus), locally known in North America as the caribou: R. t. caribou, which is subdivided into ecotypes: woodland (boreal), woodland (migratory) and woodland (montane), R. t. granti (Porcupine caribou or Grant's caribou), R. t. groenlandicus (barren-ground caribou) and R. t. pearyi (Peary caribou).
In North America, because of its vast range in a wide diversity of ecosystems, the subspecies Rangifer tarandus caribou is further distinguished by a number of ecotypes, including boreal woodland caribou, migratory woodland caribou and mountain woodland caribou. Populations—caribou that do not migrate—or herds—those that do migrate—may not fit into narrow ecotypes. For example, Banfield's 1961 classification of the migratory George River caribou herd, in the Ungava region of Quebec, as the subspecies Rangifer tarandus caribou, the woodland caribou, remains—although other woodland caribou are mainly sedentary.
Rangifer tarandus is "endangered in Canada in regions such as southeastern British Columbia at the Canadian-USA border, along the Columbia, Kootenay and Kootenai rivers and around Kootenay Lake. Rangifer tarandus was considered endangered in the United States in Idaho and Washington (state) . R. t. pearyi is on the IUCN endangered list." According to Geist, the "woodland caribou is highly endangered throughout its distribution right into Ontario."
All U.S. caribou populations are in Alaska. There was also a remnant population of about a dozen boreal woodland caribou (R. t. caribou) in the Selkirk Mountains of Idaho, which were the only remaining wild caribou in the contiguous United States. As of 2021, the last member, a female, was transported to a wildlife rehab center in Canada, thus marking the extirpation of the caribou from the Lower 48.
There are four herds in Alaska, the Western Arctic herd, the Teshekpuk Lake herd, the Central Arctic herd and the Porcupine herd, the last of which is transnational as its migratory range extends far into Canada's north. The largest is the Western Arctic caribou herd, but the smaller Porcupine herd has the longest migration of any terrestrial mammal on Earth with a vast historical range.
The Porcupine caribou herd is transnational and migratory. The herd is named after their birthing grounds, for example, the Porcupine River, which runs through a large part of the range of the Porcupine herd. Individual herds of migratory caribou once had over a million animals per herd and could take over ten days to cross the Yukon River, but these numbers dramatically declined with habitat disturbance and degradation. Though numbers fluctuate, the herd comprises approximately 169,000 animals (based on a July 2010 photocensus). The Porcupine herd's annual migrations of 1,500 miles (2,400 km) are among the longest of any terrestrial mammal. Its range spans approximately 260,000 km2 (64,000,000 acres), from Aklavik, Northwest Territories to Dawson City, Yukon to Kaktovik, Alaska on the Beaufort Sea. The Porcupine caribou or Grant's caribou (Rangifer tarandus granti) is a subspecies with a vast range that includes northeastern Alaska and the Yukon and is therefore cooperatively managed by government agencies and aboriginal peoples from both countries. The Gwich'in people followed the Porcupine herd—their primary source of food, tools, and clothing—for thousands of years—according to oral tradition, for as long as 20,000 years. They continued their nomadic lifestyle until the 1870s. This herd is also traditional food for the Inupiat, the Inuvialuit, the Hän, and the Northern Tutchone. There is currently controversy over whether possible future oil drilling on the coastal plains of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, encompassing much of the Porcupine caribou calving grounds, will have a severe negative impact on the caribou population or whether the caribou population will grow.
Unlike many other Rangifer tarandus subspecies and their ecotypes, the Porcupine caribou is stable at relatively high numbers, but the 2013 photo census was not counted by January 2014. The peak population in 1989 of 178,000 animals was followed by a decline by 2001 to 123,000. However, by 2010, there was a recovery and an increase to 169,000 animals.
Many Gwich'in people, who depend on the Porcupine herd, still follow traditional caribou management practices that include a 1981 prohibition against selling caribou meat and limits on the number of caribou to be taken per hunting trip.
The Western Arctic caribou herd is the largest of the three. The Western Arctic herd reached a low of 75,000 in the mid-1970s. In 1997 the 90,000 WACH changed their migration and wintered on Seward Peninsula. Alaska's reindeer herding industry has been concentrated on Seward Peninsula ever since the first shipment of reindeer was imported from eastern Siberia in 1892 as part of the Reindeer Project, an initiative to replace whale meat in the diet of the indigenous people of the region. For many years it was believed that the geography of the peninsula would prevent migrating caribou from mingling with domesticated reindeer who might otherwise join caribou herds when they left an area. However, in 1997 the domesticated reindeer joined the Western Arctic caribou herd on their summer migration and disappeared. The WACH reached a peak of 490,000 in 2003 and then declined to 325,000 in 2011.
By 2017, the Teshekpuk herd's numbers, whose calving grounds are in the region of the shallow Teshekpuk Lake, had declined to 41,000 animals. Teshekpuk Lake in the North Slope is in the traditional lands of the Iñupiat, who depended on the Teshekpuk herd for millennia. Teshekpuk Lake is also in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, where the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) had approved oil and gas drilling on 11 January 2006. The NPR-A is the "single largest parcel of public land in the United States" covering about 23 million acres". The reserve's eastern border sits about 100 miles to the west of the more famous Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The leasing of Teshekpuk Lake land to industry was protested by the Iñupiat and others who sent 300,000 letters to the US Secretary of the Interior and the ConocoPhillips CEO over the summer of 2006. On 25 September 2006, the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska protected the wildlife habitat around the lake from an oil and gas lease sale.
In October 2017, U. S. Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, announced that as of 6 December 2017, lands under the administration of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management will be up for bid on the "largest offering of public lands for lease in the history of the [BLM] — 10.3 million acres". The Prudhoe Bay Oil Field, near Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, is situated between the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the east. Industry will be allowed to run "roads, pipelines and drill rigs" in the very sensitive habitat areas, including the Teshekpuk caribou herd calving grounds. The Teshekpuk herd remains at the calving grounds for several weeks in spring before moving from Teshekpuk Lake for relief from mosquitoes and botflies before their annual migration.
Reindeer were imported from Siberia in the late 19th century and from Norway in the early 1900s as semi-domesticated livestock in Alaska. Reindeer can interbreed with the native caribou subspecies.
The barren-ground caribou (R. t. groenlandicus), a long-distance migrant, includes large herds in the Northwest Territories and in Nunavut, for example, the Beverly, the Ahiak and Qamanirjuaq herds. In 1996, the population of the Ahiak herd was approximately 250,000 animals.
The Ahiak, Beverly and Qamanirjuaq caribou herds are all barren-ground caribou.
"The Beverly herd’s crossing of the Thelon River to its traditional calving grounds near Beverly Lake was part of the lives of the Dene aboriginal people for 8,000 years, as revealed by an unbroken archaeological record of deep layers of caribou bones and stone tools in the banks of the Thelon River (Gordon 2005)." The Beverly herd (located primarily in Saskatchewan, Northwest Territories; with portions in Nunavut, Manitoba and Alberta) and the Qamanirjuaq Herd (located primarily in Manitoba, Nunavut; with portions in the southeastern NWT and northeastern Saskatchewan) fall under the auspices of the Beverly and Qamanirjuaq Caribou Management Board. The Beverly herd, whose range spans the tundra from northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan and well into the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, had a peak population in 1994 of 276,000 or 294,000, but by 2011 there were approximately 124,000 caribou in the Beverly herd and 83,300 in the Ahiak herd. The calving grounds of the Beverly herd are located around Queen Maud Gulf, but the herd shifted its traditional birthing area. Caribou management agencies are concerned that deterioration and disturbance of habitat along with "parasites, predation and poor weather" are contributing to a cycling down of most caribou populations. It was suggested the Ahiak and Beverly herds switched calving grounds and the Beverly may have moved "near the western Queen Maud Gulf coast to the north of the herd’s "traditional" calving ground in the Gary Lakes area north of Baker Lake." The "Beverly herd may have declined (similar to other Northwest Territories herds), and cows switched to the neighbouring Ahiak herd to maintain the advantages of gregarious calving." By 2011 there were approximately 124,000 caribou in the combined Beverly/Ahiak herd which represents a "50% or a 75% decline from the 1994 population estimate for the Beverly Herd."
The Peary caribou (R. t. pearyi), the smallest subspecies in North America, known as tuktu in Inuktitut, are found in the northern islands of Nunavut and the Northwest Territories. They remain at low numbers after severe declines. On Baffin Island, the largest Arctic island, the population of Peary caribou peaked in the early 1990s to approximately 60,000 to 180,000. By 2012, in northern Baffin Island caribou numbers were considered to be at a "low in the cycle after a high in the 1990s" and in southern Baffin Island, the population was estimated as between 1,065 and 2,067.
There are four barren-ground caribou herds in the Northwest Territories—the Cape Bathurst, Bluenose West, Bluenose East and Bathurst herds. The Bluenose East caribou herd began a recovery with a population of approximately 122,000 in 2010, which is being credited to the establishment of Tuktut Nogait National Park. According to T. Davison 2010, CARMA 2011, the three other herds "declined 84–93% from peak sizes in the mid-1980s and 1990s.
The subspecies R. t. caribou, commonly known as woodland caribou, is divided into three ecotypes: boreal woodland caribou (also known as forest-dwelling), migratory woodland caribou and mountain woodland caribou.[clarification needed] Caribou are classified by ecotype depending on several behavioural factors – predominant habitat use (northern, tundra, mountain, forest, boreal forest, forest-dwelling), spacing (dispersed or aggregated) and migration patterns (sedentary or migratory).
In Canada, the national meta-population of the sedentary boreal woodland ecotype spans the boreal forest from the Northwest Territories to Labrador. They prefer lichen-rich mature forests and mainly live in marshes, bogs, lakes and river regions. The historic range of the boreal woodland caribou covered over half of present-day Canada, stretching from Alaska to Newfoundland and Labrador and as far south as New England, Idaho and Washington. Woodland caribou have disappeared from most of their original southern range and only about 34,000 remain. The boreal woodland caribou was designated as threatened in 2002.
The migratory George River caribou herd (GRCH), in the Ungava region of Quebec and Labrador in eastern Canada was once the world's largest caribou herd with 800,000–900,000 animals. Although it is categorised as the subspecies Rangifer tarandus caribou, the woodland caribou, the GRCH is the migratory woodland caribou and, like the barren-ground caribou, its ecotype may be tundra caribou, Arctic, northern or migratory, not forest-dwelling and sedentary like most woodland caribou ecotypes. It is unlike most woodland caribou in that it is not sedentary. Since the mid-1990s, the herd declined sharply and by 2010, it was reduced to 74,131—a drop of up to 92%. A 2011 survey confirms a continuing decline of the George River caribou herd population. By 2018 it was estimated to be fewer than 9,000 animals as reported by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, down from 385,000 in 2001 and 74,131 in 2010.
The Leaf River caribou herd (LRCH), another migratory forest-tundra ecotype of the boreal woodland caribou, near the coast of Hudson Bay, increased from 270 000 individuals in 1991 to 628 000 in 2001. By 2011 the herd had decreased to 430 000. According to an international study on caribou populations, the George River and Leaf River herds and other herds that migrate from Nunavik, Quebec and insular Newfoundland, could be threatened with extinction by 2080.
The Queen Charlotte Islands caribou (R. t. dawsoni) from Graham Island, the largest of the Queen Charlotte Islands, was believed to represent a distinct subspecies. It became extinct at the beginning of the 20th century. However, recent DNA analysis from mitochondrial DNA taken from the remains of these caribou suggest that the animals from the Queen Charlotte Islands were not genetically distinct from the Canadian mainland caribou subspecies.
According to Kolpashikov et al. (2013) there were four main populations of barren-ground caribou (R. t. groenlandicus) in western Greenland in 2013. The Kangerlussuaq-Sisimiut caribou herd, the largest, had a population of around 98,000 animals in 2007. The second largest, the Akia-Maniitsoq caribou herd, decreased from an estimated 46,000 in 2001 to about 17,400 in 2010. According to Cuyler, "one possible cause might be the topography, which prevents hunter access in the former while permitting access in the latter."
The last remaining wild tundra reindeer in Europe are found in portions of southern Norway. In southern Norway in the mountain ranges, there are about 30,000–35,000 reindeer with 23 different populations. The largest herd, with about 10,000 individuals, is at Hardangervidda. By 2013 the greatest challenges to management were "loss of habitat and migration corridors to piecemeal infrastructure development and abandonment of reindeer habitat as a result of human activities and disturbance."
Norway is now preparing to apply for nomination as a World Heritage Site for areas with traces and traditions of reindeer hunting in Dovrefjell-Sunndalsfjella National Park, Reinheimen National Park and Rondane National Park in Central Sør-Norge (Southern Norway). There is in these parts of Norway an unbroken tradition of reindeer hunting from the post-glacial Stone Age until today.
On 29 August 2016, the Norwegian Environment Agency announced the death of 323 reindeer by the effects of a lightning strike in Hardangervidda.
On 3 December 2018 a hiker in Northern Norway reported a sighting, and posted photos, of a rare white reindeer calf.
The Svalbard reindeer (R. t. platyrhynchus) from Svalbard Island is very small compared to other subspecies (a phenomenon known as insular dwarfism) and is the smallest of all the subspecies, with females having a length of approximately 150 cm (59 in), and a weight around 53 kg (117 lb) in the spring and 70 kg (150 lb) in the autumn. Males are approximately 160 cm (63 in) long, and weigh around 65 kg (143 lb) in the spring and 90 kg (200 lb) in the autumn. The reindeer from Svalbard are also relatively short-legged and may have a shoulder height of as little as 80 cm (31 in), thereby following Allen's rule.
The Svalbard reindeer seems to have evolved from large European reindeer, and is special in several ways: it has peculiarities in its metabolism, and its skeleton shows a remarkable relative shortening of the legs, thus parallelling many extinct insular deer species.
Reindeer inhabit mostly northern parts of Sweden and the central Swedish province of Dalarna. In northern Sweden and parts of Dalarna, reindeer herding activity is generally part of the lifestyle of the indigenous Sámi people.
The Finnish forest reindeer (R. t. fennicus), is found in the wild in only two areas of the Fennoscandia peninsula of Northern Europe, in Finnish/Russian Karelia and a small population in central south Finland . The Karelia population reaches far into Russia, however, so far that it remains an open question whether reindeer further to the east are R. t. fennicus as well. By 2007 reindeer experts were concerned about the collapse of the wild Finnish forest reindeer in the eastern province of Kainuu. During the peak year of 2001, the Finnish forest reindeer population in Kainuu was established at 1,700. In a March 2007 helicopter count, only 960 individuals were detected.
East Iceland has a small herd of about 2,500–3,000 animals. Reindeer were introduced to Iceland in the late 1700s. The Icelandic reindeer population in July 2013 was estimated at approximately 6,000. With a hunting quota of 1,229 animals, the winter 2013–2014 population is expected to be around 4,800 reindeer.
Semi-domesticated reindeer of domestic stock were brought to Scotland in 1952. In 2017, there were about 150 left to graze across 10,000 acres of land in the Cairngorms National Park, where the climate is classed as tundra.
A few reindeer from Norway were introduced to the South Atlantic island of South Georgia in the beginning of the 20th century. The South Georgian reindeer totaled some estimated 2,600 animals in two distinct herds separated by glaciers. Although both the flag and the coat of arms of the territory contain an image of a reindeer, a decision was taken in 2011 to completely eradicate the animals from the island because of the environmental damage they cause, which was done so with a team of Norwegian Sami hunters from 2013 to 2017, which revealed the true count to be around 6,750.
Around 4,000 reindeer have been introduced into the French sub-Antarctic archipelago of the Kerguelen Islands.