Reindeer Games in Norway

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A reindeer walks through the town of Hammerfest, Norway.

The red glow of Rudolph's shiny nose may have lit Santa's way on many a Christmas Eve, but the good people of Hammerfest take a dimmer view of the species that ostensibly hauls St. Nick's sleigh. That's because each summer, the 9,400 residents of the Norwegian burg that claims to be world's northernmost town have to endure the presence of thousands of the heavy-coated ruminants who descend on their cluster of colorful buildings around a curved inlet some 600 miles inside the Arctic Circle. The antlered visitors devour vegetable patches, muck up sidewalks and generally despoil the tidy flower beds and manicured lawns of the town, wander the streets in small groups like delinquent youths, blocking traffic and staring down passing cars. But obnoxious as their presence may be, for years the town has had to live with it: As former mayor, Alf Jakobsen, who recently woke to find one napping in his garage, noted bitterly, "Tourists like them."

Each day in summer, a small ship carrying visitors through Norway's northern fjords stops for a few hours in Hammerfest, where posing for snapshots alongside the legendary beasts is the major attraction, and therefore a key source of revenue for local businesses. But when the ship sails on, the residents are left with the clogged traffic and indiscriminately dropped dung and urine, and the $140,000 annual bill to clean out playgrounds before the start of the school term. "It's an unusual problem," concedes Svein Jorstad, a local editor.

The town council had hoped, this summer, to end the reign of the reindeer after a new natural gas field discovered offshore had filled the town coffers. It built a 12-mile fence that entirely encircled the town, hoping that the four-foot barrier built at a cost of $450,000 would keep the herd out. Engineers designed special gates that would allow people but not reindeer to cross. But the reindeer were having none of it: They passed through the fence on road crossings, using their concave hooves to balance their way across the grates embedded in the road designed to be impassable by the reindeer. "We are sure we can do it better next year," said Jakobsen.

And so, once again, this summer, the streets belonged to the herd. Sitting in a small downtown café, a TIME correspondent noticed a particularly handsome rack of antlers sitting disembodied, it seemed, on the outer windowsill. It looked as if a hunter had simply left it there. Then it moved, and a crowd of other racks floated by. Outside, the animals stood about four feet high, slightly smaller than their North American cousins, the caribou. Reindeer are the only deer species in which both males and females carry antlers. This group looked particularly sleek after a long summer of grazing. After checking out the scene at the cafe, they moved off to snack on a patch of grass in front of the town hall. The gas field workers know to keep out of their way: One recounted the tale of a young relative who was seriously injured after being charged by a male reindeer in rut, after the bull had apparently mistaken the gas man for a rival.

Beyond Hammerfest, people are worried about the impact of global warming on the animals, which are part of the continent's biggest herd of wild reindeer, estimated at 25,000. Each year it migrates from the Hardangervidda plateau in central Norway and Sweden down to the northern coast in search of their favorite lichens and mosses (and vegetable patches). Recent research found that warmer and wetter winters such as those of recent years can reduce the number of live calves. Early rains and quick freezes can leave a thick crust of ice covering the snow, through which the reindeer cannot dig. Untimely thaws can also interfere with migration routes, making rivers hard to cross. And insect species, such as wood ticks, are invading from the south.

The residents of Hammerfest, of course, are mindful of such problems. But, so far, they have not noted any decline in the numbers of their annual visitors. They take comfort, at summer's end, in that part of the pattern that has yet to be disrupted by climate-change — the return of the herd from the coast back up to the frozen central plateau, leaving Hammerfest to the humans for another year.