A century ago, believe it or not, reindeer lived on the island of Newfoundland. In the early 1900s, Sir Wilfred Grenfell imported 300 reindeer from Norway with dreams of the population flourishing on the island, providing a new source of food and fur – and a handy draft animal – for Newfoundlanders.
But despite his best intentions, the good doctor had unknowingly set in motion a chain of events that are still felt in Newfoundland today – long after the reindeer have gone.
In the winter of 1908, the reindeer, accompanied by Lapland herding families, arrived. Fifty were trotted to Millertown (for use by the AND Company), while the remaining 250 stayed in St. Anthony.
During the first several years, just as Grenfell had hoped, the reindeer flourished. Eventually, they grew to a population more than 1,000 strong. But a variety of factors – including poaching – caused the herd’s numbers to dwindle. By 1918, what was left of the reindeer were shipped to Canada.
Unfortunately, they left something behind.
Grenfell’s reindeer carried brainworm (the parasite Elaphostrongylus rangiferi), which, while harmless to humans, has deadly consequences for caribou and reindeer. The parasite causes Cerebrospinal Elaphostrongylosis (CSE), a severe neurological disorder. During the reindeer’s decade-long stay in Newfoundland the island’s native caribou became infected with the parasite. The disorder was first detected in Newfoundland’s caribou in the 1970s and has since been found in herds island wide.
With caribou herds all over the province dwindling for a variety of reasons in recent years, the deadly seed Grenfell planted a century ago is yet another odd stacked against them.
For more information on the caribou’s decline – and the measures being taken to bring them back – see the February 2012 issue of Downhome.