As the Planet Warms, What Happens to the Reindeer?

Ecologists are racing across the ice to find out how climate change will affect the Arctic natives

(Randall Hyman)
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(Continued from page 2)


In Fardalen, a valley with the equivalent of a snowmobile highway that runs out from Longyearbyen, the team seeks another deer, the sixth of the day. The valley walls rise steeply, then level off for a few hundred feet before the start of a peak that appears to be made of fondant. On that broad shelf, the scientists chase down and net White 78.

Ropstad, the vet, and Larissa Beumer, a German graduate student who has come out for some field experience, tie White 78’s ankles with a loop of rope called a hobble and take a blood sample. Most deer stay still during the scientists’ tests, resigned to the poking and prodding, protest showing only in their eyes. Some struggle awkwardly. “Some are a bit stroppier than others. They’re like people,” Albon says. White 78 kicks, snorts and groans as Ropstad does an ultrasound. There’s a moving fetus in there. “Pregnant, live,” Ropstad calls to Vebjorn Veiberg, an ecologist from the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research in Trondheim, who records the data. Veiberg has heard the phrase many times this week.

We’re huddled around the tied-up deer, like a nomadic camp in the white vastness: snowmobiles parked in a semicircle, people in matching black suits with fur-lined hoods, kneeling or standing, a few working efficiently through the series of measurements and sample collection. After several days in a cabin with no running water, everyone looks a bit ragged.

It’s still well below freezing, but with the right apparel—a thick coat of fur for reindeer, multiple layers of wool and an insulated snowmobile suit for humans—it is perfectly comfortable to be outside all day. Sandwiches and thermoses of warm black currant juice will come out after this deer’s data are collected, and when the wind isn’t blowing, the sun warms the air next to your skin. There is time to admire the landscape and reflect on the day. “I’ve always thought this stuff, for a real job, is not bad,” Albon says. It beats sitting in a cubicle.

Albon and Veiberg catch the hobble between the deer’s hoofs on a set of scales that hang from the center of a pole. They heave the pole’s ends to their shoulders, then to the tops of their heads, so her antlers don’t drag on the snow. “Fifty-seven point zero,” Albon says. That’s 126 pounds, a good weight.

Before freeing White 78’s legs, Leif Egil Loe, an ecologist at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, sprays a red “X” on each of her flanks so the team won’t accidentally catch her again too soon—the color wears off after a week. Some deer shoot off across the snow in a wild galumph, but White 78 stands up and walks away, down the slope, across the snowmobile highway and up the other side, off to dig for food under the snow.


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