FAIRBANKS - He has a long, wiry beard, wears a red parka and hangs out with reindeer just a short sleigh ride from the interior Alaska town of North Pole.
But please don't confuse animal researcher Milan Shipka with you-know-who.
"I have nothing against Santa Claus. I love Christmas," Shipka said. "But reindeer meat is healthy and it tastes good, and most people don't think of Santa eating his reindeer when he's done on the 26th."
Not that Shipka plans to dine on the 17 pregnant reindeer he's studying at a University of Alaska Fairbanks research center. But the species has great livestock potential, as some Alaska reindeer herders have long known, he says.
The halter-broke animals sniffed at the air as Shipka led some visitors into a large pen at the Robert G. White Large Animal Research Station on a recent freezing afternoon. The reindeer scooted to the back of the enclosure, but within minutes their gregarious nature won out and they surrounded the visitors. A reindeer named Nymph nudged one of them in the leg.
"She's an inquisitive girl," Shipka said. "And a bit forward."
Shipka's study is looking at the reproductive biology of reindeer throughout their 215-day gestation, an effort he hopes will lead to improved management of the species.
The state's reindeer industry has roots going back to the late 1800s, when missionary Sheldon Jackson introduced Siberian reindeer to Alaska Natives in the Western Alaska peninsula. The idea was to create a sustainable alternative to then-dwindling numbers of subsistence animals, including caribou and whales, said wildlife biologist Bill Hauer. He is the manager of the 134-acre station, operated by the university's Institute of Arctic Biology.
Reindeer meat today is prized for its rich flavor, tenderness and low fat content. Also valued are byproducts such as antlers, which are used in some medicines including arthritis treatments, according to ecologist Greg Finstad, manager of the university's Reindeer Research Program, whose subjects live on a UAF experiment farm on campus.
Reindeer in Alaska also have been used to carry passengers, supplies and mail, not to mention mythical loads of presents.
Today only Alaska Natives can own Alaska-born reindeer, under a law passed by Congress in 1937, with rare exceptions such as UAF researchers. Most of the reindeer trade remains on the Seward Peninsula and so does much of the meat, although some is sold elsewhere in the state and beyond. Finstad said there are more than 25 roving herds between the peninsula and several Alaska islands, as well as a handful of fenced operations in the interior.
Seward Peninsula reindeer roam the tundra over large ranges, rounded up with the help of helicopters or four-wheelers - that is, if their handlers can find them.
Scores of reindeer have run off with their high-strung, migrating cousins from the Western Arctic caribou herd, whose numbers have skyrocketed in recent decades. The two are the same species, but are classified as two subspecies because there are enough differences. Reindeer - a domesticated subspecies - are shorter, rounder, less skittish and more sedentary.
As many as 225,000 caribou spend winters in the region, according to Finstad, who has worked with herders to study the fugitive reindeer problem, monitoring some of the animals through radio and satellite collars. The aim is to develop a new management strategy for the estimated 10,000- to 15,000 reindeer that remain in the region.
"Tens of thousands have left with caribou," Finstad said. "We've found a high mortality rate in those animals that left. Reindeer don't survive very long in a caribou world," where they are subject to rigors they never had to endure as domestic animals.
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