Hanging a reindeer ornament on a Christmas tree might hold more meaning this year. Two separate new studies suggest that reindeer benefit the Scotch pine and other species traditionally sold as Christmas trees.
Reindeer, known as caribou in North America, can directly aid such trees by promoting their growth in the wild. They can also indirectly support the preservation of entire forests, which in turn helps to combat climate change, according to Cornell University conservation scientist Jeff Wells.
“If you protect caribou range, you protect the carbon and the ability of the forests and wetlands to continue to sequester carbon,” Wells explained to Discovery News.
Sari Stark of the Finnish Forest Research Institute proves Wells’ contention, right down to the soil level.
Stark and her colleagues analyzed how grazing reindeer affect soil processes in nutrient-poor northern boreal forests located in Finland. They determined that in the long run, areas grazed by reindeer lose less carbon, through plant litter, than areas without reindeer.
The findings are published in the latest issue of the journal Soil Biology and Biochemistry.
Stark and her team also observed that reindeer have a tremendous effect on what grows in the forest.
Reindeer love lichen, so without hungry reindeer around, thick carpets of lichen cover the forest understory. In reindeer-grazed parts of the forest, mosses and evergreens join lichens, with Scotch pine trees towering over all.
Wells, who said the conclusions of Stark and her team “sound reasonable,” conducted his own study on reindeer (also known as woodland caribou) in Canadian forests.
He found that many caribou populations are in decline, with some herds dropping in number by as much as 90 percent over recent years. Sixty percent have been lost in Alberta, and 40 percent are gone in British Columbia, Wells said.
The reason for the losses, according to Wells’ paper published in Forestry Chronicle, is industrial development that is taking over caribou territory.
“The largest industrial footprint in woodland caribou habitat has been from industrial scale forestry operations, including road building and other infrastructure, but there are major impacts also from oil and gas extraction too, particularly in Alberta and British Columbia,” said Wells.
He added that hydropower operations, mining and other human activities are additionally taking over caribou habitat.
Both in Finland and in Canada, the loss of reindeer/caribou has hurt people that traditionally rely upon these animals for their survival.
“When the caribou didn’t appear in the past, many people would starve,” Wells said, adding that caribou are also “an integral part of their culture in ways that are profound but difficult for non-aboriginal peoples to comprehend.”
James Schaefer, director of the Environmental & Life Sciences Graduate Program at Trent University, told Discovery News that he supports Wells’ conclusions. Schaefer was also not surprised by Stark’s determination that reindeer are capable of altering the plants and soil chemistry within the environments where they are found.
Schaefer quoted author and biologist George Calef, who said: “Caribou herds are like a geological force as they flow over the land… dominating the landscape and the lives of people who hunt and depend on them.”
Wells hopes future conservation of these animals will fully involve aboriginal cultures.
“It is often said by aboriginal people that: ‘We are the land and the land is us,'” he concluded. “And because of this, many aboriginal governments have been leading the way in developing world class conservation plans for their lands.”