In 2013, 61,000 reindeer in Russia's northern Yamal region, a remote section of Siberia, starved to death when ice and deep snow sealed off the Arctic tundra where they graze. This summer, the region's first outbreak of anthrax in 75 years—an epidemic thought to be tied to climate change—sickened humans and animals alike. Now the nomadic herders there are facing a man-made threat as officials push ahead with an unprecedented culling that calls for at least one in seven of the Yamal's reindeer to be slaughtered, the AP reports. The cull that started this month is championed by local officials and scientists who say a record reindeer population is leading to overgrazing and more frequent epidemics. But environmental activists and some herders allege that energy interests pressed for the forced killings, which they say could destroy the endangered culture of the Nenets people.
Since the Soviet era, the government has organized an annual cull in which up to 70,000 reindeer are killed off. Officials are contemplating killing up to 250,000 of the animals this year and say 100,000 will be slaughtered by the end of December (the slaughtering season has also been extended by a month). However, reindeer numbers are not unusually high at the moment, and culling opponents say traditional pasturelands are disappearing due to the growth of the oil and gas industry, not the reindeer. The industry's rapid expansion has curtailed the access herders have to pasture and their freedom to move across the tundra. "It will end up with nomadic reindeer herders turning into settled reindeer farmers," a Greenpeace rep in Russia says. "This is a completely different form of husbandry, and means the loss of a culture." The owner of a 200-head herd who's called on Vladimir Putin to stop the expanded cull adds: "Every herder should decide the fate of their own reindeer." (Read more Russia stories.)