Peary Caribou © J Nagy/GNWT
Just as Santa is making his list and checking it twice, Dasher and Dancer’s brethren may need a boost from the Endangered Species Act. Populations of peary and dolphin-union caribou, better known as reindeer, are significantly lower than they were just a few decades ago, a result of severe weather events and climate change. To protect the species, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) filed a petition in September asking the Fish and Wildlife Service to list the species under the ESA. The deadline for the government to respond is just in time for Christmas.
“The current science we’ve seen show that caribou are affected by climate change throughout their circumpolar region,” says Nathan Herschler, a legal fellow with IFAW. “What we’re seeing right now that is that extreme weather events are really increasing, freezing rain effectively locking them out of their food sources,” like lichen, he says.
Peary caribou, which have been most severely affected, are the bellwether of change, he says. In the late 1960s, there were as many as 50,000 individuals roaming the Canadian Arctic. Now, just 50 years later, there are an estimated 7,800. That may not seem like a small number when Santa only needs eight to pull his sleigh, but if the genetic pool gets too small, there may not be enough diversity to keep the population viable.
Other pressures like oil development, mining, and over harvesting are also threatening the reindeer. Combined with climate change, those factors could prove lethal for Rudolph’s descendants.
“Listing the species under the Endangered Species Act will not only bring international awareness to the plight of these species, but will also impose restrictions on the importation of either the animal or its parts, heightening and hopefully acting as a catalyst for global action to save them from extinction,” reads the press release.
“We would hope that he FWS recognizes the science that we’ve presented them and list the species as endangered under the ESA,” says Herschler. We’re gonna find out if they’re naughty or nice on December 16th.