For the last century, reindeer have roamed St. Paul Island without much oversight.
But now, the tribal government is stepping up its management style to boost subsistence options and the local economy.
Fleshy red reindeer quarters are spread across the tables of St. Paul’s tavern. Surrounding them are eager preteens, wielding knives and wearing plastic gloves.
“I don’t think we can cut through this bone," says one student. "It’s like that thick.”
“No! You don’t want to cut through the bone," a teacher responds.
The kids are learning how to butcher a hind shank — how to feel along the bone with their fingertips, slice through the tendons, and free the best cut of meat.
“Do you want to cut the joint right there?” the teacher asks. "There you go. Nice!"
Lauren Divine is one of the instructors at “reindeer camp” — a first for the small island of 500 people.
“Just having a first shot at reindeer camp out here is a really big step for us," says Divine, the co-director of the tribe's Ecosystem Conservation Office.
Specifically, she says it’s a step towards an active management program for the island’s herd.
Even though reindeer have lived on St. Paul for about 100 years, she says the tribe hasn’t done much more than distribute hunting permits. That’s slowly beginning to change, because the community needs another consistent source of meat.
“Especially in light of other resources that are declining," says Divine. "The struggle becomes greater every year.”
So tribal leaders have started investigating ways to develop reindeer as a robust option for subsistence.
They’re experimenting with different hunting seasons and harvest strategies, in addition to offering community education, like this camp.
“We’re at the starting line," says Divine. "Whereas a lot of other places in Alaska are more developed or have these champions who have been around for a long time in the reindeer world, we’re building our knowledge base from the ground up.”
That’s clear from the dozen or so kids at camp. Most are pretty new to the animal, including 9-year-old Riley Melovidov.
“My dad only hunted [them] one time,” he says.
His family liked the meat. They liked having a stash of it in the freezer, too, alongside their fur seal and other more established subsistence foods.
“Yeah! I was into it,” he says.
Riley’s family isn’t the only one interested. Tribal leaders say more and more people are picking up permits, heading out on the tundra, and taking a shot at reindeer hunting. Eventually, that participation could translate into something more profitable.
“They have an opportunity to be able to sell the reindeer meat in the store," says Erin Carr of the Reindeer Research Program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Carr is partnering with the tribe to expand St. Paul’s economy — and freezer section — through commercial sales at the local grocery store. It’ll take a while, but she says the program would let people support the island’s hunters while avoiding the astronomical prices of other meat.
Back at reindeer camp, the kids finish their butchering lesson and shed their bloody gloves. They gather around the grill in silent excitement.
“You want to sear it on medium-high on both sides," says Divine.
Finally, the reindeer is served up, the taste test begins — and the reviews are positive.
“Really good!" says one camper. "You want to try?”