St. Matthew Island reindeer crash revisited: Their demise was not nigh—but then, why did they die?

Frank L. Miller, Samuel J. Barry, Wendy A. Calvert

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St. Matthew Island; reindeer crash; climate; forage; growth rates; introduced population; Rangifer tarandus; single-year die-off; weather


Twenty-nine yearling reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) were released on St. Matthew Island in the Bering Sea Wildlife Refuge in 1944: 24 females and five males. They were reported to have increased to 1350 reindeer by summer 1957 and to 6000 by summer 1963. The 6000 reindeer on St. Matthew Island in summer 1963 were then reduced by 99% to 42 by summer 1966. The evidence suggests that after growing at a high average annual rate of lamda = 1.32 for 19 years, the entire die-off occurred in winter 1963—64, making it the largest single-year crash ever recorded in any R. tarandus population. Although a supposedly meaningful decline in successful reproduction and early survival of calves was originally reported for the population between 1957 and 1963, our reevaluation indicates this is an error resulting from the wrong sample being used in the between-year comparison. The quantitative data indicate no meaningful change occurred, and the calf:cow ratio was about 60 calves:100 cows in both 1957 and 1963. Calf production and survival were high up to the crash, and in the die-off population the age distribution (72%, 1—3 years old) and the sex ratio (69 males:100 females) reflected a still fast-growing R. tarandus population. All of these parameters do not support the hypothesis that the limited abundance of the absolute food supply was at a lethal level between 1957 and 1963 or in winter 1963—64. We now know from other studies that a high density of R. tarandus is not a prerequisite for a major single-year winter die-off. Existing population dynamics data do not support lack of lichens as a major causative factor in this single-year crash. If a decline had been caused by the limitation of the absolute food supply, it would have followed a multi-year pattern—it would not have been a single-year event. There was no evidence of a sudden, massive, island-wide loss of the absolute food supply, or that its nutritional value was inadequate for sustaining the reindeer. Mean weights of reindeer by sex and age class declined between 1957 and 1963, but only to levels similar to those of mainland reindeer. The reindeer population on St. Matthew Island undoubtedly was or soon would have been seriously influenced by heavy use of the lichens and the future did not bode well for continued population growth. Although the food supply through interaction with climatic factors was proposed as the dominant population-regulating mechanism, a general acceptance that only density-dependent food-limitation was necessary to cause the crash remains strong in some quarters. We challenge this; we believe that the winter weather was the all-important factor that led to the premature, extreme, and exceptionally rapid, near total single-year loss of 99% of the reindeer on St. Matthew Island in winter 1963—64.


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Copyright (c) 2015 Frank L. Miller, Samuel J. Barry, Wendy A. Calvert

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