Disturbance, Avoidance & Loss of Pastures: Ingunn Ims Vistnes
Written by Philip Burgess   
Wednesday, 10 December 2008 11:26
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Ingunn Ims Vistnes is a researcher at NORUT, based in Alta who has just successfully defended her Dr. philos thesis entitled ‘Impacts of Human Development and Activity on Reindeer and Caribou Habitat Use’. Her thesis is the result of nearly a decade of research into the impacts of human activity on reindeer habitat which has resulted in the publication of a number of refereed articles in international scholarly journals, 8 of which are in the newly published Dr. philos thesis. The study areas were primarily from examples in Norway, but examples from Alaska were also used.


There is a great deal of scientific, anecdotal and traditional knowledge available now that clearly shows that human activities have substantially reduced habitat for reindeer and that it is a process that is accelerating in all reindeer habitats. Habitat fragmentation and disturbance is a serious threat to populations of wild reindeer and caribou and semi domestic reindeer, thereby threatening the livelihoods of those people who depend on them. Fragmentation is taking place due to a number of impacts,  that include roads, power lines, railroads, oil and gas development, industrial forestry, recreational development and leisure activities.


Why have reindeer been the focus of research?

Reindeer use extensive areas and as a result they are an indicator of an ecosystem in function or not in function. So if you have healthy reindeer systems, with functioning migration routes it can tell you a great deal about the health of the entire ecosystem. Reindeer are also important to people, obviously for the Sami culture but also for the villages in the South of Norway where wild reindeer hunting is an important tradition. They are important throughout the circumpolar North to many indigenous peoples who herd and hunt reindeer. So reindeer are a vital species to a great many people.

What is disturbance and why should we and / or reindeer care about it?

The main finding of my research is that reindeer reduce the use of areas close to disturbance. What we find and what is new compared to what we knew in the recent past  is that the extent of the disturbed zone is much larger that what most people imagine. As much as 2-5 kilometres away from a cabin or tourist resort can be said to have disturbance consequences for reindeer, and even out to 15 km for wild reindeer and caribou. Of course this is not news to reindeer herders because they have observed this themselves, but it is new information to the research community and managers – that is you build a road, it is not only the square metres covered by the road that is a loss to the reindeer but it is a much wider zone around the road that sees a reduced use by reindeer after the road is built.   40 % of Norway is classified as reindeer pastures, so any development happening in this area has to look at what will be the consequences for reindeer herds.

Are these finding applicable also to other species?

They are definitely to some extent, for example in the UNEP Scenarios where they see that the way that reindeer respond to disturbance is comparable to the behavior of e.g. elephants and other large grazers, great apes,  and also carnivores such as wolves and bears: they withdraw from infrastructure and reduce the use of areas close to humans. What UNEP does here is ingenious, as they manage to create scenarios of biodiversity loss through readily available satellite and aerial maps of infrastructure development. By measuring the rate of growth in infrastructure through the last decades, you can make predictions about the future and you can link this information to a loss of biodiversity or impacts on specific species.

Does it matter what kind of disturbance it is?

If you look in detail, it does – if it is a large tourist resort or a single power line there is a marked difference in the avoidance zone. There are also a lot of other factors that influence the extent of the avoidance zone such as how the infrastructure is placed in the terrain, what kind of seasonal grazing land is impacted and the level of human activity linked to that infrastructure to name but a few. Also – what kind of reindeer we are talking about. Wild reindeer react more strongly than domestic reindeer and we have females reacting more strongly than males.

What about Hammerfest, in Northern Norway – there, reindeer seem to be quite accustomed to humans and the built environment. How does that fit into the avoidance story?

Hammerfest is an interesting example as it doesn’t really fit in. I think we can say that it is the exception to the rule, and it tells us something about the complexity of this research. You will in some areas have reindeer that are accustomed to disturbance and Hammerfest is built on one of the best grazing areas on Kvaløya and it is an area with a lot of competition for land between the city of Hammerfest and reindeer, but the reindeer herders themselves say that most of the reindeer and most of females are far away from Hammerfest, they use the other side of the island. You do see females with calves in Hammerfest, but the proportion of males in the town is much higher than in the total herd.

Can we mitigate the effects of disturbance?

We looked at one interesting case in Rondane in southern Norway where a tourist trail and cabin was moved from one area to another and we saw that after only a few years the wild reindeer moved back to that area. This tells us that it is possible to mitigate disturbance on the small scale. I think that on the larger scale it becomes a political question if we want to make room for reindeer or not. On the smaller scale, I think it is possible to mitigate and improve conditions, reopen closed migration routes, for wild reindeer for example, if we can move some cabins that are in critical areas, or we can regulate traffic into an area  so that there is none during migrations for example.

Do recommendations such as these have political implications?

Yes, very much so. For example wild reindeer have a great political importance in Norway because it is the last wild reindeer in Europe and we have an international obligation to take care of them. We have seen this in the case of hydro electrical power projects  and power line projects that have partly been stopped over concerns of impacts to wild reindeer, and also the plans to construct tunnels on critical stretches of Hardangervidda to secure wild reindeer winter habitat. These are political decisions. There are major political implications when it comes to reindeer husbandry, as Sami are an indigenous people so there are international obligations that Norway has made when it comes to their culture and livelihoods.

I would like to see a more effective and active strategy from the Reindeer Husbandry Administration and the Ministry of Food and Agriculture to ensure that we have at least some areas left for reindeer in one hundred years time. The current situation is that reindeer pastures are saved if no one else wants them. If other interests, such as mining or recreational interests want an area, each case has to be fought. Reindeer husbandry will lose some of these cases and win some others. However, the net sum is that land is lost each year and it is just a matter of time before too much land is lost.

So you think land needs to be set aside for reindeer?

Yes, that is my opinion. Managers are very much aware of the problem, but I would like to see a more proactive strategy, because the only land that we now can be sure  will remain in one hundred years is in the National Parks and reserves. This is not very much, and they are mainly in the inland areas but we need more coastal areas protected. The heaviest development pressure is on the coast.

The construction of cabins seems to be a major contributor to disturbance.

Yes, that is a type of impact where we see the largest avoidance by both wild and domestic reindeer. Cabins lead to a lot of associated human activity around them, in addition to trails, roads and power lines. There are less cabins in Northern Norway compared to Southern Norway, but the rate at which they are being built is high.

How do you respond to those who claim that reindeer husbandry is not a net provider of jobs and resources to northern economies, whereas resource intensive industries such as mining are and as a result should take precedence over reindeer and reindeer husbandry.

Well, if one simply looks at economics, we should not do reindeer husbandry and should go for oil and gas. One could perhaps say the same about employment figures. This comes back to the political implications of this kind of research. My job as a researcher is only to document the effects of infrastructure and human activity and then the politicians have to decide: Do we want to have reindeer husbandry in the future or not? We are going to lose the land if we take no action, there is no doubt about that. We can also ask what kind of reindeer husbandry do we want to have? Do we want to use a lot of supplementary feeding and migrations by trucks as we already see a lot of in Sweden. In Norway the position of the Reindeer Husbandry Administration has not been to encourage supplementary feeding or mechanized migration, but that is the direction we are heading if the land continues to be lost.

Interview by Philip Burgess, With thanks to Ingunn Ims Vistnes.

‘Impacts of Human Development and Activity on Reindeer and Caribou Habitat Use’
Ingunn Ims Vistnes
Norwegian University of Life Sciences – Universitet for Miljø-og Biovitenskap
Department of Ecology and Natural Resource Management
Alta/Ås 2008
www.norut.no, www.umb.no

Disturbance, ICR Interview, Ingunn Ims Vistnes, Loss of Pastures, NORUT, Research