Try Orion

Uncertain Future

Reindeer herders confront a new climate

Text and photographs by Benjamin Drummond and Sara Joy Steele

Published in the July/August 2008 issue of Orion magazine

Herders drive the reindeer through thick brush. Warming has contributed to a dramatic increase in birch trees around Finnmark.
A Sámi herder sorts reindeer at a corral near Kautokeino, Norway. Rising temperatures can create impenetrable crusts of ice on the lichen mats the reindeer normally graze on.
Per Person Eira skins reindeer beside his family's <i>laavo</i>. Government pressures to increase production encourage homogenous herds that are more vulnerable to climate change.
Transported by boat because of development on their traditional pasturelands and migration route, these animals will resume their fall migration after a six-hour trip.
After the fall migration, Aslak Gaup gathers his reindeer to separate the herds, mark new calves, and cull animals for slaughter.
At the corral, herders set up laavos and park cars, ATVs, and dirt bikes beside them. Dogs bark; people butcher reindeer; kids build animals out of snow. Inside the laavos, people nap on skins, chew on reindeer fat, and send text messages on cell phones.
Ingrid Mari-Anne S. Gaul prepares a fire to smoke meat in her laavo. Herders around Finnmark are focused on developing local adaptation strategies based on their traditional knowledge about management and nature.

Click on the first image above to launch slide show with captions.

REINDEER HUSBANDRY has supported civilization across the Eurasian Arctic and subarctic for thousands of years. As the semi-nomadic Sámi herdsmen of northern Norway face irreversible impacts from global warming, more immediate challenges hinder their ability to adapt. Herders are accustomed to the highly variable Arctic environment. But they now face changing climate conditions and privatization by oil companies, mining operations, and residential construction, all of which limit their ability to keep their animals “exactly in the right place at the right time,” says Niklas Labba, a Sámi herder. “I think that there are problems bigger than global warming, more immediate and more important to look at. But in the long term, global warming is the most important thing, because if you want to have reindeer herding in one hundred years, you must have the nature and the conditions to herd the reindeer.”

A note from the editors: In March 2008, Orion co-sponsored the second annual Our World portfolio review, which is hosted by PhotoAlliance, a San Francisco–based nonprofit dedicated to photography. Thirty-five reviewers and more than sixty artists from across the country participated. A select subcommittee of reviewers from various backgrounds granted the inaugural Orion/PhotoAlliance Award to Benjamin Drummond and Sara Joy Steele for their ongoing project “Facing Climate Change.” The committee’s decision was unanimous. “We see a lot of global warming projects,” said Orion picture editor Jason Houston. “‘Facing Climate Change’ stands out not only at this review, but among them all.”

These pages include a selection from one aspect of the portfolio: Sámi reindeer herdsmen. For additional elements of the climate change portfolio click here.


Orion publishes six thoughtful, inspiring, and beautiful issues a year,
supported entirely by our readers – we're completely ad-free!

Please consider donating to help us continue to explore the future of nature.

Benjamin Drummond and Sara Joy Steele are a Seattle-based photographer/ writer team working on a documentary project about the human impacts of climate change.

Article Resources