What are the impacts of reindeer/caribou (Rangifer tarandus L.) on arctic and alpine vegetation? (systematic review)


The reindeer (or caribou, Rangifer tarandus L.) has a natural range extending over much of Eurasia’s and North America’s arctic, alpine and boreal zones, yet its impact on vegetation is still unclear. This lack of a common understanding hampers both the management of wild and semi-domesticated reindeer populations and the preservation of biodiversity. To achieve a common platform, we have undertaken a systematic review of published studies that compare vegetation at sites with different reindeer densities. Besides biodiversity, we focused on effects on major plant growth forms.


Searches for literature were made using online publication databases, search engines, specialist websites and bibliographies of literature reviews. Search terms were developed in English, Finnish, Norwegian, Russian and Swedish. Identified articles were screened for relevance based on titles, abstracts and full text using inclusion criteria set out in an a priori protocol. Relevant articles were then subject to critical appraisal of susceptibility to bias. Data on outcomes such as abundance, biomass, cover and species richness of vegetation were extracted together with metadata on site properties and other potential effect modifiers.


Our searches identified more than 6,000 articles. After screening for relevance, 100 of them remained. Critical appraisal excluded 60 articles, leaving 40 articles with 41 independent studies. Almost two thirds of these studies had been conducted in Fennoscandia. Meta-analysis could be made of data from 31 of the studies. Overall, effects of reindeer on species richness of vascular plants depended on temperature, ranging from negative at low temperature to positive at high temperature. Effects on forbs, graminoids, woody species, and bryophytes were weak or non-significant, whereas the effect on lichens was negative. However, many individual studies showed clear positive or negative effects, but the available information was insufficient to explain this context dependence.


We see two pressing matters emerging from our study. First, there is a lack of research with which to build a circumpolar understanding of grazing effects, which calls for more studies using a common protocol to quantify reindeer impacts. Secondly, the highly context-dependent outcomes suggest that research and management have to consider local conditions. For instance, predictions of what a management decision would mean for the effects of reindeer on vegetation will have to take the variation of vegetation types and dominant growth forms, productivity, and grazing history into account. Policy and management have to go hand-in-hand with research in individual cases if the dynamics between plants, animals, and humans are to be sufficiently understood.


Reindeer, Caribou, Rangifer tarandus, Forbs, Grasses, Graminoids, Woody species, Lichens, Bryophytes, Species diversity, Herbivory, Grazing, Browsing, Tundra

Background: Reindeer and caribou (both belonging to the species Rangifer tarandus L.) are among the most important large herbivores in Eurasia’s and North America’s arctic, alpine and boreal zones. In Sweden, the impact of reindeer grazing on arctic and alpine vegetation has recently been re-evaluated. In the 1990s, records of grazing-related vegetation degradation helped to form a widespread perception that some mountain areas were overgrazed. However, later analyses have shown no evidence of large-scale overutilisation of reindeer ranges in the Swedish mountains. The present-day consensus is that overgrazing has been temporary and local, and that it rarely has caused permanent damage, but it is imperative to examine the scientific support for these views. Moreover, the Swedish Parliament has adopted an environmental quality objective according to which it is essential to preserve ‘a mountain landscape characterised by grazing’. No details have been given on how this goal is to be interpreted, which is another reason why the significance of reindeer grazing for arctic/alpine vegetation needs to be assessed. This protocol presents the methodology that will be used in a systematic review of the impact of reindeer herbivory in arctic and alpine ecosystems. The focus will be on Fennoscandia, but data from other parts of the range of R. tarandus will be used when deemed appropriate.

Methods: The review will be based on primary field studies that compare vegetation subject to different degrees of reindeer/caribou herbivory (including grazing and browsing as well as trampling). Such comparisons can be either temporal, spatial or both. The review will cover impacts of herbivory in arctic, subarctic, alpine and subalpine areas (including the forest-tundra ecotone) across the range of R. tarandus, but not in boreal forests. Relevant aspects of vegetation include cover (abundance), biomass, diversity (e.g. species richness), structure, composition (including functional groups) and productivity.