Wildfire, Reindeer Top Arctic Research Commission’s Agenda

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

The U.S. Arctic Research Commission is wrapping up three days of meetings at the University of Alaska Fairbanks today.  The Commission sets goals for allocation of hundreds of millions of dollars in annual funding.  Acting commission chair UAF Professor Buck Sharpton is one of three Alaskans on the seven-member panel, with the other four from Oregon, Virginia, Massachusetts and New York.

UAF-based scientists are presenting their work to the Arctic Research Commission. Associate Professor of Arctic Biology Syndonia Bret-Harte spoke on projects going on at the university’s Toolik Station on the North Slope, including the landscape’s response to an unprecedented wildfire in 2007.  The Anatuvuk River Fire, the largest tundra blaze ever recorded on the North Slope burned 400 square miles in the summer and fall of 2007.  Bret-Harte says the burn area has greened up, but some of the plants coming back are different.

Bret-Harte says the charred tundra also became more subject to permafrost thawing.

Climate warming is blamed for an increase in the occurrence of lightning that’s making North Slope tundra more vulnerable to wildfire.

Another presenter at Thursday’s Arctic Research Commission meeting, UAF Reindeer Program Manager Greg Finstad talked about efforts to revive Alaska’s reindeer ranching business as a means to improving the economy and life in rural Alaska. Finsatd says reindeer meat is prized for its health qualities and taste, giving the industry great potential.

Alaska’s commercial reindeer herds used to number 600,000 animals in the 1920s and 30s, but today herders graze about 15,000 to 20,000 reindeer across ranges in northwest Alaska.  Federal legislation passed in 1937 limits reindeer herding to Alaska Natives. Finstad says the UAF program is trying to help villagers grow the industry.

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