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Beware of action that would put age-old tundra nomadism at risk in Yamal, says expert

By The Siberian Times reporter
23 September 2016

As a debate is underway on culling as many as 250,000 reindeer due to overgrazing, Research Professor Bruce C Forbes warns against some proposed solutions.

Yamal reindeer herder. Picture: Vladimir Adayev

A summer attack of deadly disease anthrax - awakened after decades due to the thawing permafrost - has raised questions about the future of reindeer husbandry in the Yamelo-Nenets region. There are deep concerns about overgrazing, and calls to reduce the 710,000 reindeer population by a quarter of a million to prevent overgrazing. 

Another proposal would see nomadic herders offered affordable mortgages to live year-round in flats and cease their age-old nomadic subsistence herding in a region with vast gas resources. 

One more - floated by local governor Dmitry Kobylkin - would see fenced reindeer pastures, as in Finland.

Here a long-time friend of Yamal, Bruce C. Forbes, Research Professor at the Arctic Centre, University of Lapland, in Finland, gives his view to The Siberian Times.

Replacing one set of problems with another 

I am a geographer and ecologist with 25 years of experience of studying Yamal tundra pastures and more than two decades of experience with reindeer pastures in Finnish Lapland. I can say with certainty that for Yamal to switch from its open nomadic reindeer grazing to one resembling the fenced-in pastures of Finland would be to simply replace one set of problems with another. 

The 'overgrazing' narrative in Finland is almost as old as the one in Yamal. In Sweden and Norway, semi-domesticated reindeer belonging to the Sami still follow reasonably long-distance migration patterns. 

Animals move between winter lichen grounds and summer graminoid/herb pastures separated by many tens (Norway), if not hundreds of kilometres (Sweden).

Finland fenced reindeer into much smaller territories and by the early 1970s lichens vanished over most of the northern forest and tundra zones as they were trampled in summer by reindeer traversing dry lichen grounds to reach shrub- and graminoid-rich wetlands.

Sami herders were accused of denuding the fjells and cast as failed stewards of the land at best, greedy ecocriminals at worst. 

This argument has waxed and waned over last 3-4 decades but has once again reached a fever pitch in the Finnish media. 

Beware of action that would put age-old tundra nomadism at risk in Yamal, says expert
Yamal reindeer herder. Picture: Vladimir Adayev

In recent weeks critics from Lapland to Helsinki have denounced the Finnish system of reindeer management as 'evil factory farming'. They suggest that meat quality has declined and demand major reductions in the reindeer population so that lichen grounds can 'recover'. 

This situation is extremely frustrating to the Sami in Finland's far north because they already feel that every aspect of their herd is managed from above and they long ago lost most of their ability to treat their animals and pastures with respect in the traditional way. 

Many dislike the supplementary feeding system that has spread since the 1980s to compensate for the loss of winter lichen forage. They also disapprove of the shift since Finland joined the EU in 1995 from traditional outdoor slaughtering of animals in winter to shipping animals on trucks to one of the 13 EU-certified slaughterhouses. They know well that this stresses animals reduces meat quality.

Beware of action that would put age-old tundra nomadism at risk in Yamal, says expert

On Yamal Peninsula, the tundra territories of Yarsalinski and Panaevsk are characterized by spring, summer and autumn pastures. 

Yes, most of the lichen cover also disappeared decades ago. This is called 'overgrazing' but, as in Finland, the tundra lichens are missing more from trampling during the snow-free season than actual consumption. The winter lichen grounds of Yarsalinski and Panaevsk in the forest-tundra zone south of the Ob River delta remain rich and productive.

Yes, the Yamal tundra has become crowded at certain places and times as both private and collective herds have grown substantially in the post-Soviet era.

During this same period, some northern brigades of Yarsalinski have had to adapt to the spreading infrastructure associated with natural gas exploration and extraction. 

The fact that they have managed to coexist peacefully for over 25 years now is a testament to the great efforts made by herders, reindeer administrators and Gazprom alike. Rhetoric about mutual coexistence is cheap, but in practice it takes real work from all sides to achieve and to maintain. It will be even more difficult in the near future as Yamal gas production ramps up rapidly. 

Beware of action that would put age-old tundra nomadism at risk in Yamal, says expert
"Let's avoid short-term decisions based on questionable data that will affect tundra nomads for decades to com". Picture: Vladimir Adayev

Still, it is a basic fact that as progressively more land is used for gas infrastructure, less will be available for utilization as pastures by herders. It is claimed that reindeer caused Yamal sandy areas to erode, but in many parts of Yamal the surficial sand deposits from late Pleistocene and early Holocene occur naturally and wind erosion is common. 

This is the case even if reindeer don't use the sites for actual grazing, since they have little vegetation cover, but only occasionally occupy them during hot weather for insect relief. We have the same situation with ancient sand deposits in northern Finnish Lapland. 

Might culling be a solution?

Culling 250,00 reindeer for the sake of increasing lichen cover on spring, summer and autumn pastures is not sound reasoning. The few thousand remaining reindeer will continue to use moderately raised terrain for insect relief during the snow-free season and lichens will not 'recover'. 

Anyway, they are not preferred forage during the snow-free season, so what is the point? 

The fact is that reindeer eat mainly green vegetation (willow shrubs, graminoids and herbs) during spring, summer and autumn. My colleagues and I have published findings from ground-level (dendroclimatology) and satellite-based (vegetation index) data. 

We have shown that the tundra zone of Yamal is becoming more productive as reindeer numbers have increased since the 1970s, not less productive.

So, how does one define 'overgrazing'? 

Beware of action that would put age-old tundra nomadism at risk in Yamal, says expert

Beware of action that would put age-old tundra nomadism at risk in Yamal, says expert
Beware of action that would put age-old tundra nomadism at risk in Yamal. Pictures: Vladimir Adayev

Let's put aside emotional arguments about 'degraded lichen cover' and 'expanding sand erosion' and put state-of-the-art science to work for the benefit of Yamal. 

The issue may be anthrax, vegetation damages, or expanding gas development, climate change or some combination of all of these.

The point is, let's avoid short-term decisions based on questionable data that will affect tundra nomads for decades to come, perhaps permanently. 

Let's have a meaningful dialogue that is inclusive of scientific, administrative and Nenets herders' perspectives. Please, let's not rush to vacate the globally esteemed Yamal tundra and its vibrant, centuries old social-ecological system. 

Fencing in reindeer herds based on Finland's model of reindeer management would be a serious mistake. 

It is under heavy attack here in Finland and if implemented on Yamal would surely be blamed for the demise of Nenets' tundra nomadism.

Comments (8)

There is a contradiction in the article because first it says there are 710,000 reindeer in the area, so after culling 250,000 reindeer, 460,000 will it doesn´t make sense that Forbes say "the few thousand remaining reindeer" if there are 460,000...
Enrique, Spain
03/10/2016 09:20
So there are different points of view.

Some think there is an overpopulation of reindeer which is endangering the vegetable-lichen protection from erosion while others like Forbes think it is not even if still there will be half a million reindeer.
Enrique, Spain
03/10/2016 09:12
Kiitos Prof. Forbes for your replies and additional information. It is very helpful in understanding the entire perspective. Hauskaa päivän jatkoa!
Pamela Tetarenko, League City, USA
24/09/2016 17:48
I agree with Bruce Forbes' comments. Not saying that there is no overgrazing problem, but the main point is that herders' knowledge and voices need to be considered much more in any of this decision making. More background can be found here:
Florian Stammler, Research Professor, Arctic Centre, University of Lapland
Florian Stammler, Rovaniemi, Finland
24/09/2016 01:57
Pamela, note also that the figure of 710,000 reindeer is for the entire Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Okrug. The figure for Yamal Peninsula is probably less than 275,000 at the moment. A new count should be available soon after the November slaughtering season. There are a lot of additional data on Yamal tundra shrub productivity in the Supplementary Material of the Nature Climate Change paper.
Prof. Bruce Forbes, Rovaniemi, Finland
24/09/2016 00:44
Publications with data regarding decadal trends in Yamal tundra productivity during recent decades include: (1) Macias Fauria, M. et al. (2012) Eurasian Arctic greening reveals teleconnections and the potential for structurally novel ecosystems. Nature Climate Change 2: 613–618. doi:10.1038/NCLIMATE1558; (2) Zeng, H. et al (2013) Response of phenological shifts to climate and anthropogenic factors as detected from multi-satellite data. Environmental Research Letters 8. doi:10.1088/1748-9326/8/3/035036. More up-to-date datasets are under analysis now since the situation over the last 5-7 is not yet clear.
Prof. Bruce Forbes, Rovaniemi, Finland
24/09/2016 00:40
I certainly agree with Professor Forbes that it is critical "to have a meaningful dialogue that is inclusive of scientific, administrative and Nenets herders' perspectives". Thank you to all stakeholders working hard to co-exist. It is very intriguing to me trying to visualize 710,000 reindeer happily grazing nomadically. Is there a link to the studies showing the increase in Yamal Tundra eco-productivity with the increasing reindeer numbers? I agree it is very important to understand the real data certainly and not repeat lessons possibly already learned in Finland. Hopefully this will help people in Finland who are challenging the current practices as well..
Pamela Tetarenko, League City, USA
23/09/2016 22:59
let the reindeers graze unhindered twice in a particular region and not any number of times in order to prevent grazing and solve the problem. Fencing like it is done in Finland or anywhere else would serve least purpose.
rajeev kumar, new delhi/India
23/09/2016 15:42

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