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Reindeer monitoring

Landsvirkjun monitors reindeer in an area covering over 8,350 km2 in cooperation with the Engineering Institute of the University of Iceland and the East Iceland Natural History Institute .

Landsvirkjun monitors the distribution of the reindeer population within the affected area of the Fljótsdalur Hydropower Station. The objective of monitoring is to assess how the population is affected by Landsvirkjun’s operations in the Kárahnjúkar Hydropower project area and to assess the subsequent increase in traffic to the area.
Annual monitoring covers an area of 8,350 km2 in the Snæfell wilderness area. Population monitoring is carried out by the Engineering Institute of the University of Iceland via aerial photography. The East Iceland Natural History Institute also monitors population, distribution and behaviour. Reports on reindeer monitoring are released on an annual basis and the results of reindeer monitoring can be found on Landsvirkjun and Alcoa´s website initiative: Sustainability.is.

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Research on the Snæfell herd

Reindeer monitoring in the affected area of the Fljótsdalur Hydropower Station has focused on reindeer belonging to the so-called Snæfell herd. The herd is comprised of the Fljótsdalur herd and the Norðurheiðar herd. The geographical area in the east of Iceland, inhabited by reindeer, can be separated into nine hunting areas. The Norðurheiðar herd is found in hunting area 1 and the Fljótsdalur herd is mostly found in hunting area 2 but has also been found in area 6 and in the northernmost part of area 7 in recent years. There is limited movement between areas 1 and 2 but there is evidence that reindeer have moved from area 2 over to area 1. The research area (due to the impact of hydropower development) was therefore mainly limited to areas 1 and 2 as well as the westernmost parts of area 6 and the northernmost parts of area 7.

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Reindeer hunting area

The geographical area in the east of Iceland, inhabited by reindeer, can be separated into nine hunting areas. The research area for the Snæfell herd (the Fljótsdalur herd and the Norðurheiðar herd) focused on hunting area 1 and 2 as well as the westernmost parts of area 6 and the northernmost parts of area 7.

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The East Iceland Natural History Institute has released an extensive report on observed changes to the Snæfells herd, observed through monitoring throughout the last few decades. Monitoring results show an increase in population during the construction period and that the condition of the animals was good as a result of a mild winter. The main summer grazing grounds for the herd shifted from the Vesturöræfa area to the Fljótsdalsheiði area in 2002. The Fljótsdalur population grew until 2009 but decreased, for the first time in fifty years, in 2011 and 2013 as a result of hunting and export from the area. The Vesturöræfi area has flourished in the last decade, sheep numbers have decreased and the Pink-footed Goose population has grown. The construction of the Hálslón Reservoir in 2007 resulted in the loss of grazing land and this led to a change in the distribution of animals. Changes to the distribution of and grazing habits of reindeer in the Snæfell wilderness after the year 2000 could be the result of changing weather conditions, long-term effects of hydropower development and increased tourism in the area.

Monitoring results showed that the construction of the Kárahnjúkar Hydropower Project did not have a negative impact on the growth and welfare of the reindeer population in the Snæfell wilderness.

Construction work on the power project in the Snæfell wilderness was ongoing between 2002 and 2009. Monitoring results show that construction did not have a negative impact on the growth and welfare of the reindeer population in the area but did affect their distribution and grazing habits. There was no clear correlation between these changes and construction. However, there were indications that disturbance from increased traffic, as a result of construction and increased access to the area, may have deterred a group of bulls previously found in the Kringilsá River area but have not been seen since 2006. However, the more likely explanation is the rather complicated interplay between various aspects such as weather changes, hunting and other human activity in the area. Other less well- known aspects include changes to vegetation, size of population, animal behaviour, etc. Similar changes were observed in other reindeer hunting areas during the same period.

Monitoring the reindeer population with GPS devices has offered tremendous insight on the behaviour and traveling habits of reindeer. Twelve reindeer were fitted with GPS devices and their movements were monitored and registered. This is a photograph of the reindeer ‘Heiða’ accompanied by nearly three hundred animals in Staðareyri in Berufjörður.

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Twelve reindeer from the Snæfells herd were fitted with GPS devices. The devices send out daily information on the animals.

Reindeer from the Norðurheiðar herd began to enter an area to the north of the previously defined northernmost part of the hunting area, in the east of Iceland. This is probably the result of an increase in population. Research conducted on GPS monitors showed that manmade structures such as roads, electric cables, reservoirs and fences did not significantly deter the animals. However, mountain cabins did seem to have an effect. The most likely influence on the traveling habits of the animals is vegetation as this ensures their survival. Other aspects including weather changes, snow coverage and disturbance as a result of human activity could also have a seasonal effect. More research is needed.

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Behaviour during the calving period, grazing land and choice of diet

The East Iceland Natural History Institute is responsible for yearly monitoring within calving areas in the Snæfell wilderness, Brúardalir and the southern part of the Fljótsdalur highland areas. Monitoring assesses if and how construction affects the calving period. Monitoring is conducted on land and via aerial monitoring. Grazing land and choice of diet is monitored. Vegetation maps have been updated on the main area inhabited by the reindeer during the summer period in connection with monitoring on the travel habits of reindeer. Detailed vegetation maps offer more insight into the diet choices of reindeer in the area.