Reindeer near Santa's hometown need help to survive a warming climate

Posted at 9:40 AM, Dec 05, 2019
and last updated 2019-12-05 11:40:03-05

Climate change is threatening one of the famous symbols of Christmas: Santa's reindeer. Over the past 20 years, wild reindeer and caribou populations have declined by more than two million.

Rovaniemi, the capital of Lapland in northern Finland, is known as Santa's home town. It's where Rudolph's cousins provide sleigh rides (albeit on the ground) to tourists from around the world. But CBS News correspondent Mark Phillips reports that miles outside the city, reindeer herds are struggling to find food.

To find the herds, you've got to go about 250 miles north of Santa's Village and then drive a snowmobile another 30 or so miles across rough, open tundra in temperatures approaching zero. But winter, even that far north, isn't what it used to be.

Andte Gaup-Juuso is one of the Sami people, an indigenous group that has been herding reindeer since the dawn of time. He says the climate in Lapland is changing.

"If it's warm weather, then snow's going to be — it melts, and next day, it freezes," he told Phillips.

Phillips asked if there's been more warm weather, bringing less snow and more rain, in recent years.

"Yeah, last 10 years," Gaup-Juuso replied.

The result is reindeer dying. A big die-off was discovered on the arctic islands of Svalbard last summer. The huge wild herds of caribou — the same species as reindeer — that have roamed for years across Alaska and northern Canada have been reduced by half, according to a recent government report.

Gaup-Juuso said the reindeer are looking for lichen, a mossy plant that they dig down through the snow to get at. But the repeated thawing and re-freezing means they can't dig through the ice to get to the food.

"When the snow turns to ice, what happens to the reindeer?" Phillips asked.

"We have to feed them," Gaup-Juuso said. "We have to give them extra food."

He lives in Raitija, the most remote village in Finland with just 10 houses, five families, no power and no running water. Every day he travels up to 60 miles each way, through the few hours of dim winter light, to find the herd to check up on it.

When asked how many are in his herd now, Gaup-Juuso hedged.

"I have some reindeer — but it's same thing if I ask you how much you have money in the bank," he said. "My reindeer is my whole worth, my whole worth."

Gaup-Juuso and his wonder dog Ben-uh gather the scattered herd and drive them south, to where they can bring feed to them if necessary. A few are also sold off to the reindeer meat market, which is how the herders make their living.

He admits that herding the reindeer is hard work some days.

"Why don't you leave and go work in the city?" Phillips asked him.

"This is my life," he said.

The reindeer in Finland are the lucky ones. They have the Sami herders to look after them. For tens of thousands of others elsewhere, however, the human influence hasn't been so kind.