By Ben Olson
Amid a hectic Idaho Legislature filled with partisan measures and battles between the legislative and executive branches over everything from citizen-led initiatives to emergency powers, House Bill 166 — ending the prohibition for raising reindeer north of the Salmon River — quietly made its way through the House and Senate. Gov. Brad Little ultimately signed the bill into law after a rare bipartisan show of support, bringing a tidy conclusion to an effort led in part by a Sandpoint man who has made raising reindeer — and other woodland creatures — his life’s work.
Mike Miller was pleased to see the bill pass with a large show of support from both the House and Senate, with only five lawmakers voting “nay” in both chambers. The bill makes it lawful for any person to raise, breed and own fallow deer, elk or reindeer in captivity, so long as the premises have been registered with the division of animal industries. The bill ends a prohibition on raising reindeer north of the Salmon River set 35 years ago to avoid conflicting with the woodland caribou species.
Miller has been involved with raising reindeer for decades, since he started the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center to raise captive species for research and reintroduction into the wild.
When he started in 1992, there was an overpopulation of reindeer on one of the Aleutian Islands, following years of cultivation of both reindeer and cattle by the Russians.
“There were 870 reindeer there,” Miller told the Reader. “They multiply fast, but crash as soon as the food source diminishes. They were decimating the island that far north — it takes a long time to rebound. The further north you go, the harder it is to survive.”
Two local doctors ended up capturing 100 reindeer from the island and gave Miller 25 of them, selling the rest for meat. The 25 animals served as the foundation for Miller’s wildlife center. He was pleased to have gotten them out; afterward, more than 700 were shot from helicopters to help manage the overpopulation so indigenous species of birds and other animals weren’t decimated by the introduced herds.
Miller began collecting woodland species at his wildlife center in the early ’90s, including caribou, moose, elk, bear, musk ox, wood bison, reindeer and blacktail deer. It soon became evident to Miller that reindeer were markedly different from the others, thanks to generations of breeding by the Russians.
“All the other species you couldn’t get to walk on a halter,” Miller said. “You could hold them on a leash, but if they wanted to go forward, they went forward. They’re still wild. The reindeer we got off the island were domestic at one time. They’ve been domestic for centuries, actually.”
It took a little patience and care, but Miller said it was easy to gain the reindeer’s trust through calm, positive reinforcement.
“We’d take some of the males and females and put one of those sled dog hooks in the ground; tie them up real close,” Miller said. “We’d give them some willows or something they like to eat and soon they would recognize that you’re feeding them. Next time you come out they don’t jump around so much.”
After some time, Miller said he was able to domesticate the reindeer with pelletized reindeer food.
“You’d hold your hand out and they’d eat right out of your hand,” he said. “The next step is to take them off the short leash and hold them by a halter, give them food and walk with them; reward them whenever they stop jumping around. Before you know it, you can tame them down in a week. After that, you’d walk into the field and they’d come right up to you as if they trusted you. You could never do that with any other species.”
Miller estimates reindeer have been domesticated for more than 4,000 years.
“The Russians to this day have little saddles and ride them; teach them to pull sleds,” Miller said. “Some of the big nomadic Indigenous people used to have houses on skis and the reindeer would pull the shed along so they re-setup and move just like sheep herders.”
When Miller got involved raising reindeer, people were domesticating them in the U.S. for their antler velvet, which was supposed to be an aphrodisiac to help with erectile dysfunction. Russian breeders would traditionally sell to Asian markets, but when the Soviet Union broke up, the U.S. took over the market.
“People were out starting game farms, but then Viagra came out,” Miller said. “This stuff actually worked, where antler velvet was probably more of a mental thing. So yeah, Viagra put an end to the 4,000-year antler industry.”
Aside from raising woodland creatures for reintroduction to the wild, Miller also found there was a use for the animals in the motion picture industry.
“We did a lot of commercials where they wrote a moose or reindeer into the script,” he said. “We had a lot of documentary people come up who wanted long and close shots of animals eating brush.”
One of the biggest projects Miller worked on was Sean Penn’s 2007 feature film Into The Wild, set in Alaska. The moose featured in the film was raised in Miller’s wildlife center.
“It was a challenging shoot,” Miller said. “You have to let the animal settle in — hold them there for a while and hope they do what you want them to do. We could attract them to one side with a favorite bread. Moose liked bananas, reindeer liked bread. We’d always get the shot, but we always told the producers that the first shot is always the best shot, so everybody should be ready for that.”
Miller later got involved in a project trying to reintroduce the near-extinct wood bison, North America’s largest land animal, which ultimately led to his leaving Alaska for Sandpoint.
“Canada was down to 23 wood bison and Alaska was down to zero,” Miller said. “There were wood bison recovery programs, and we acquired 60 head in 2008 and brought them to the wildlife center. When we brought the bison to the wildlife center, everything got ugly.”
Whenever an endangered species is involved in Alaska, politicians and native corporations oppose the efforts primarily because the state is a resource development state, Miller said. When oil and mining interests are often stalled to protect endangered habitats, it’s not unusual for the big moneyed interests to win the day.
“We fought with politicians for 10 years,” he said. “When oil prices dropped in Alaska, we decided in 2017 that the ride was over and we headed for Sandpoint.”
With his wife and two children, Miller moved to the lower 48 and settled in Sandpoint, eager to raise a “normal” farm with pigs and chickens instead of musk ox and reindeer. But old habits die hard and Miller began researching what it would take to start domesticating reindeer again in Sandpoint.
The problem was there was a law on the books prohibiting the cultivation of reindeer to protect the herd of caribou that ranged as far south as the Selkirk Mountains as part of their habitat in years past.
“But there haven’t been caribou down here in some time,” Miller said.
There are about 10 different herds of caribou throughout British Columbia, Canada, and two southern herds that came into Idaho: the Purcell and Kootenai herds.
“The Kootenai herd is down to three males, so that’s pretty much extinct, and the Purcell herd was down to one or two females, so they captured those and are breeding them in B.C.,” Miller said. “They’ll release the calves once they’re big enough.”
When Miller saw the caribou no longer ranged into North Idaho, he began researching what it would take to reverse the law against raising reindeer in captivity. There were a few forces against him. Fish and Game are usually anti-farming, Miller said, mostly to stop the spread of chronic wasting disease.
“Raising exotic species makes Fish and Game nervous because of the risk of escape and disease,” Miller said. “They’d just as soon leave the law where it was, but there was no real reason for the law anymore.”
Miller took his concerns to the Idaho Legislature, contacting District 1 Rep. Sage Dixon, R-Ponderay, with his concerns.
“It was my first time ever introducing a law, learning the procedures going from one committee to another,” Miller said. “Working with Sage was great. He was very nice and cordial and said that if it provides an economic benefit, that’s what his job was: to improve the economy.”
Dixon told the Reader he was contacted last fall by Miller and another man named Jordan Jonas, independently of one another, requesting the prohibition on reindeer north of the Salmon River to be lifted.
“I found it curious that two individuals, who had never met, were interested in the same relatively obscure policy change,” Dixon wrote to the Reader. “After a few email exchanges with the two of them, I found merit in their ideas.”
Dixon said he saw removing the prohibition as a potential business opportunity for people in his district.
“One of the greatest rewards I experience as a legislator is sponsoring legislation that comes directly from constituents, and directly benefits our district,” Dixon wrote.
Reindeer are not only a joy to raise, but they can sell for thousands of dollars apiece for breeding.
Dixon said there was “almost no opposition” to the bill as it moved through the process.
“The Idaho Conservation League had tepid opposition on the basis of a perceived threat to the wild caribou herd that used to exist north of Priest Lake,” Dixon wrote. “The Kootenai Tribe echoed similar concerns to me privately.”
But, after discussions with both the Department of Agriculture and Idaho Fish and Game allayed those concerns, the only other point of contention was the potential for spreading chronic wasting disease to the wild caribou population.
“Those concerns were amply addressed by Mr. Miller’s testimony, as well as the fact that any new domestic cervidae ranch must still follow the permitting process as outlined by the Department of Agriculture,” Dixon wrote.
Miller said he stayed up late the night before his presentation researching chronic wasting disease to help persuade lawmakers that it wasn’t a concern.
“I called up to a friend at the University of Alaska and asked him to bring me up to date,” Miller said. “My friend said out of all the hundreds of thousands of reindeer in captivity in North America and Russia, they’d never had a positive case. Recently, there has been one in the U.S. and one in Norway, but the fact remains that reindeer just aren’t that susceptible.”
Another factor working in Miller’s favor was that domesticated reindeer don’t migrate or run off.
“You could literally leave the gate open and they won’t run,” Miller said. “They’ve lost the urge to migrate. After Gov. Little signed the bill into law, they told me I had to have a six-foot fence and woven wire fence, and that was all acceptable.”
Dixon said the process guiding this bill through both chambers and ultimately to Little’s desk was a great experience.
“It is rewarding to be able to explain the legislative process in depth, to have a constituent help craft the language of the bill, and to have a member of the public provide testimony to a committee, in both the House and Senate, on a topic that affects them directly,” Dixon wrote. “Despite our best efforts, we don’t always see an idea become law, and I am thankful this piece of legislation made it all the way through the process.”
The bill will take effect July 1, giving Miller time to build his enclosures and begin sourcing some reindeer, which he found for sale in South Dakota. After halter training them, Miller has a lot of plans for his future herd of reindeer.
Miller said he’d like to work with North Idaho visitor centers to use the reindeer to attract visitors and residents to winter events at Schweitzer, other winter events such as the Kinderhaven “Festival of Trees” fundraiser at the Bonner County Fairgrounds, Home Town Holiday in Bonners Ferry and Christmas events throughout the region. Summer activities could include walking reindeer through parades, on display at the Festival at Sandpoint, church events, outdoor and hunting shows, and photo opportunities for tourists.
Aside from the community benefits, the reindeer could be again utilized for any film production purposes, which could help attract commercials and film production to the area. Finally, the educational opportunities to showcase live reindeer to area schools is particularly attractive.
On the agricultural side, reindeer could be used as a 4-H animal at the county fair, as breed stock, for hard antler sales and local meat sales. Reindeer meat is delicious in sausage, hot dogs, burgers and steaks, Miller said.
“I hope this brings some benefit for the community and makes it unique,” Miller said. “It is unique and I hope it fits in and brings that sense of fun to Sandpoint.”
FUN FACTS ABOUT REINDEER:
• A reindeer’s hooves are shaped like snowshoes and covered in hair, which helps give them a good grip when walking on frozen ground, ice, mud and snow.
• Reindeer float because they have two layers of hair: a dense undercoat and a top layer of hollow hair filled with air that floats like a cork, which is useful for migration. People have even used reindeer hair to fill life jackets.
• When a reindeer walks, its heels click, which experts think is a way the herd stays in contact during heavy snowstorms. This finally explains the lyric to the popular Christmas song, “Up on the housetop, click click click.”
• Reindeer and caribou are the same animals, but the word “reindeer” often refers to those that have been domesticated or semi-domesticated.
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