Decrease of lichens in Arctic ecosystems: the role of wildfire, caribou, reindeer, competition and climate in north-western Alaska
AbstractWe review and present a synthesis of the existing research dealing with changing Arctic tundra ecosystems, in relation to caribou and reindeer winter ranges. Whereas pan-Arctic studies have documented the effects on tundra vegetation from simulated climate change, we draw upon recent long-term regional studies in Alaska that have documented the actual, on-the-ground effects. Our review reveals signs of marked change in Arctic tundra ecosystems. Factors known to be affecting these changes include wildfire, disturbance by caribou and reindeer, differential growth responses of vascular plants and lichens, and associated competition under climate warming scenarios. These factors are interrelated, and, we posit, unidirectional: that is, they are all implicated in the significant reduction of terricolous lichen ground cover and biomass during recent decades. Lichens constitute the primary winter forage for large, migratory caribou and reindeer herds, which in turn are a critical subsistence resource for rural residents in Alaska. Thus, declines in these lichens are a major concern for rural people who harvest caribou and reindeer for subsistence, as well as for sport hunters, reindeer herders, wildlife enthusiasts and land managers. We believe a more widely distributed and better integrated research programme is warranted to quantify the magnitude and extent of the decline in lichen communities across the Arctic.
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