Experts concerned about collapse of wild forest reindeer population
Wolves often prey on forest reindeer in eastern province of Kainuu
The collapse of the population of Finnish forest reindeer (Rangifer tarandus fennicus) in the eastern province of Kainuu is a cause for concern among researchers. During the peak year of 2001, the Finnish forest reindeer population in Kainuu was established at 1,700. In a March 2007 helicopter count, only 960 individuals were detected.
Correspondingly, in the forest reindeer herding area of Kainuu some 35 to 41 wolves were counted. The entire wolf population of Kainuu is estimated at about 60, while in the country as a whole there are thought to be between 230 and 250 wolves.
"It seems that the most significant single factor directly responsible for the decline of the Finnish forest reindeer population is the growing wolf population", says predator researcher Ilpo Kojola from the Finnish Game and Fisheries Research Institute (RKTL).
The researchers, as well as the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (the government body responsible for deciding on the country's predatory animals policy), now face a tough decision: which species are they to protect. The situation is further complicated by the EU, in whose opinion Finland too open-handedly issues licences to despatch wolves.
"In the EU nature directive the wolf is a protected species, whereas the Finnish forest reindeer is not. In my opinion, in Kainuu the forest reindeer is biologically more endangered than the wolf. Furthermore, the wolf population has spread also elsewhere in Finland", reasons Deputy Director-General Christian Krogell from the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry.
Hunting led to a drastic fall in the Finnish forest reindeer population in the 1910s. The species was placed under protection in 1913.
In the past twenty years the Ministry has invested a considerable amount of money in the protection of Kainuu's forest reindeer. Among other things, a forest reindeer fence has been erected on the southern border of the reindeer husbandry area.
The increase of the predator populations is also reflected in the declining number of the forest reindeer calves being born.
"Ten years ago every second female forest reindeer had a calf following her. Last winter only a quarter of the females managed to keep their calves alive. And yet, almost every single female gives birth to a healthy calf", Kojola explains.
On the other hand, the Finnish forest reindeer continue to thrive in the central watershed area of Suomenselkä, where some individuals were originally moved from Kainuu. In size the Suomenselkä population will soon surpass the original Kainuu population.
"Why is it that all of a sudden the Finnish forest reindeer does not seem to be able to survive in Kainuu, with wolves and all, like it has done for thousands of years?" Kojola wonders.
One reason is fellings and the slicing up of contiguous forests into smaller pieces.
"Normally forest reindeer avoid areas where there are elk. Nowadays, however, this is difficult, as everywhere there are saplings and young forests where the elk like to feed. While wolves hunt the elk for preference, more and more often a forest reindeer ends up on the menu instead", Kojola explains.
The same phenomenon has been experienced in Canada, where the forest caribou population is in serious decline.
While searching for prey, wolves also benefit from the restrictions on their prey's flight imposed by roads, railways, and power lines.