The reindeer that live along Sheep Creek Road will migrate to the other side of the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus this summer. Some may be moved to as far as Delta Junction.
Thirty-three adult reindeer and 13 calves live at the Fairbanks Experiment Farm next to the Georgeson Botanical Garden. They’re a particularly visible group of the domesticated sub-Arctic creature because they can be seen from Sheep Creek and Geist roads, and the Parks Highway. The herd has lived at the Experiment Farm since the mid-1990s.
Staff at the farm know that the reindeer are popular on campus and with visitors but had to consider other factors besides reindeer viewing, said Milan Shipka, director of the Alaska Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station.
“As much as people have enjoyed that, we have to operate for the needs of the research,” he said in an interview last week.
Shipka explained the reasoning for the reindeer move last week on Grapevine, the university’s website for dispelling rumors. The reindeer are moving for two main reasons: Current conditions are too wet for the reindeer, and research goals have changed. Instead of “range management, nutrition and feed ration research,” the new goals are “supporting the development of the reindeer industry in Alaska through business planning, slaughter method research and animal husbandry outreach.”
The fields now used by the reindeer have been particularly wet the past few summers. The wet conditions foster the growth of bacteria that threaten reindeer calves.
“Some of that area, even on the best of years, remains wet for much of the summer. The last few years it has been excessively so,” Shipka said. “I don’t know if anyone has noticed driving down Geist the last few years, but there’s been a lot more water in the ditch out there than there had been previously.”
The plan is to move the reindeer to the university’s Large Animal Research Station on Yankovich Road, which has a population of both reindeer and musk oxen. University staff ultimately hope to move many of the reindeer to a farm owned by the Stevens Village Tribal Council. The council is the Alaska Native government of Stevens Village, a community 160 miles northwest of Delta Junction on the Yukon River.
However, moving reindeer off campus requires approval of the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, which owns the reindeer at both the Experiment Farm and the Large Animal Research Station and gave the university a permit to conduct reindeer research.
“If we’re able to help support the Stevens Village people, that would actually be the first Native Alaska reindeer enterprise on the road system, where they have access to USDA-inspected slaughter plants,” Shipka said.
The Delta Junction farm already owns a small herd of plains bison.
Reindeer are a subspecies of wild caribou which were introduced to Alaska just over 100 years ago. The U.S. government imported reindeer from Russia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a project to provide food for coastal Alaska Native people left with less access to food because of the commercial whaling industry. In 1937, Congress passed the Alaska Reindeer Act, which prohibits non-Native people from owning the descendants of these imported reindeer.
At the Experiment Farm, several well-socialized reindeer from the herd have made public and educational appearances. A succession of these outreach reindeer have been given the name “Roger the Reindeer.”
Shipka said he asked whether the outreach reindeer program can continue when the herd moves to the Large Animal Research Station this summer.
“I didn’t get an unequivocal ‘Yes,’ but I got ‘yeah, I guess we’ll have room for Roger,’” he said.
Contact Outdoors Editor Sam Friedman at 459-7545. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/FDNMOutdoors