NOME, ALASKA - About 3,500 reindeer take off across the snow-covered tundra in a big, tan-colored clump, running away from Larry Davis and the buzz of his snow machine. With a little prodding, they go anywhere he wants, these 4-foot-tall, 300-pound animals whose meat and antlers have provided income, jobs and a way of life for Inupiat Eskimos here for more than 100 years.
This year, though, the domesticated reindeer have been running off with their wild cousins, the caribou of the Western Arctic herd, instead of sticking around to chew lichen poking out of the snow that still blankets the northern part of the state.
And that means trouble for Davis and other herders on the rural Seward Peninsula, eight of whom have lost their herds entirely, leading them to file a futile application for federal disaster relief.
"It's one of the most amazing things you'll ever see, this huge wave of [caribou] coming across the landscape as far as you can see," said Greg Finstad, a biologist who heads a reindeer research program at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. "They roll right over the reindeer and you never see them again.
"Unfortunately it's one of those forces of nature that's fantastic to watch but there's a consequence to people."
Reindeer and caribou are members of the same species, but thousands of years of domestication have produced distinct differences in the animals. Reindeer have shorter legs, a tendency to stay put rather than migrate and hence, are fattier and have more tender meat.
The caribou, by contrast, are considered wild animals and have adapted to the Arctic by remaining on the move, traveling up to 30 miles a day between Alaska and northwestern Canada in search of prime forage.
The rise and fall of the Western Arctic caribou herd has been a cyclical phenomenon over the past century driven by changes in weather patterns, quality of forage and the populations of other animals.
The herd's most recent expansion - from 75,000 in the mid-1970s to more than 430,000 today - has pushed the caribou westward in search of new forage to the edge of the Bering Sea, where people live in tiny villages separated by rolling tundra and mountains.
In the two previous years, the region's 14 herders received a total of $169,000 in federal emergency aid after their reindeer answered the call of the wild. The size of the reindeer herd has dropped from an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 to less than 10,000 today.
But a change in federal rules meant that when the herders applied for aid again this year, Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman denied them the required "disaster" status. In a letter to Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles, she maintained that the herders' losses were not caused by "adverse weather conditions or natural phenomena."
Knowles is now working with Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, an influential Republican, and the Department of Agriculture to see whether changes can be made in the program to make the herders eligible for aid.
"They can create disasters for pig farmers in the [lower 48] states, yet up here we're not good enough for their programs," said Tom Gray, a herder in White Mountain (population 197) and president of the Kawerak Reindeer Herders Association. His herd is down to 450 reindeer from 1,400 four years ago, causing him to shift into a fishing and big-game guiding business.
"The government will give farmers money not to farm their land, and yet you've got herders here trying to do something with their animals and the government won't give us some aid? It's a farce."
Davis is one of the lucky ones. His herd of 3,500 is the largest on the peninsula, even though he has lost half his animals. He lives in Nome, population 3,600, an old gold-rush town on the Bering Sea just 161 miles east of Russia, known internationally as home to the finish line of the Iditarod sled dog race. Most of Davis' income still comes from the reindeer meat he sells locally, though last year he started a taxi company.
"I could survive," Davis said, after a snow machine jaunt into the country to check on his herd one cold sunny day last month. "Some of those other guys, I don't know how they're going to survive."
Other villages on the peninsula, with populations of 200 to 300, offer few other jobs, either for the herders or the dozen or more young men each herder employs part time to help with corralling, tagging and butchering.
The percentage of people receiving welfare in the area was 9.6 percent in March, more than three times the statewide rate of 2.9 percent, according to figures from the state Department of Health and Social Services.
The loss of the herds also reduces the supply of reasonably priced meat. Beef, chicken or pork must be flown in at prohibitive prices.
Merlin Henry, 54, a herder in Koyuk who began herding with his father at age 13 and built the herd up to 1,500 reindeer, was earning $20,000 to $30,000 a year, supporting his family and employing 15 to 20 local teen-agers before his herd was wiped out by the caribou migration.
He's trying to find odd jobs around the village and plans to apply for a federal loan to buy more reindeer, but for now he's collecting welfare.
For a while, he'd go out on his snow machine to try to separate his reindeer from the caribou. One tactic is to chase the herd until the reindeer, with their shorter legs, drop out from exhaustion. But the high-speed chases over uneven terrain are dangerous.
The reindeer and caribou are naturally drawn to one another as members of the same species - rangifer tarandus - though they are of different subspecies (reindeer are rangifer tarandus tarandus and caribou are rangifer tarandus granti.)
They do mate, but with sometimes disastrous consequences. Reindeer calve a month earlier than the caribou; typically the reindeer are calving about now, just as the caribou begin their migration to their calving grounds on the North Slope, about 250 miles west of Prudhoe Bay. As the reindeer run away with the caribou, reindeer calves have trouble keeping up, and they often drop behind and fall victim to predators such as wolves and bears.
Between 3,000 and 10,000 years ago - scientists aren't sure precisely when - reindeer were domesticated in Eurasia, and ever since have been herded across the circumpolar north, including Russia, Norway, Finland and Sweden. The Lapps, or Samis, use them for meat and antlers, which are sold to Asian markets for medicine, as well as to pull sleds or carry men or packages on their backs.
Reindeer herding in the Seward Peninsula dates to the 1890s, when an estimated 1,800 to 1,900 reindeer were brought from Siberia by missionaries under the direction of Sheldon Jackson, a Presbyterian minister and educator, to provide a stable food source for the Inupiat.
At the time, the whaling industry and gold rush had drawn so much human activity here that hunters had wiped out the native musk oxen and were depleting whales, seals and walruses.
Over the past century, herding also provided a tie to the land and cultural identity for the Inupiat as they passed down both herds and knowledge about reindeer through the generations.
Men here recall the excitement when they began working, at age 9 or 10, with their fathers' herds, first wrestling, marking and tagging calves and graduating to corralling duties.
Long before the caribou came calling, the reindeer industry had its hardships, in part because some people gag at the thought that the cute critter that pulls Santa's sleigh could end up as a steak or sausage - and that's especially so since the story of "the most famous reindeer of all" was created in 1939 by Robert May, a Montgomery Ward copywriter in Chicago, as a Christmas store promotion.
"We've been fighting that damned legend ever since, because nobody wants to eat Santa's reindeer," said Finstad, whose research program is designed to improve the health of the industry. "When you're marketing the product, in a lot of places, you don't want to say reindeer meat. You call it Alaskan venison."
Herders no longer earn much income from selling the felt-covered deer antlers to Asia for use in medicines. Antlers from New Zealand red deer are now preferred.
Some welcome caribou
Not everyone is complaining about the explosion of caribou, said John Coady, the regional supervisor of the Alaska Division of Wildlife Conservation. Many sport hunters from Alaska and elsewhere, as well as villagers who eat caribou meat, are delighted that the Western Arctic herd is expanding into their area.
Still, he said, "If I were a reindeer herder, I suspect I'd be unhappy, too."
Later this month, once the caribou and reindeer have traipsed off on their northward migration, Finstad and his research group hope to retrieve some of them - if they can afford it. His group has worked with the herders to place tracking collars on the reindeer so that they can conduct a helicopter search.
"For a lot of people, this is the only employment they've known since they were kids," Finstad said. "Now they're like lost human beings out there. They're older men and this is what they've done their entire lives."
As much as an economic necessity, he said, herding fosters "a sense of pride in the villages."
"That's why I think the reindeer industry is so important," he said. "It re-establishes ties with the land. It gives people a reason to get out of bed and go outside into the country."