The domestic dog is one of the world’s most successful species by any ecological measure, so discussing their conservation may seem odd. However, despite the widespread distribution and huge numbers of dogs, there are genetic populations of them at risk. One such group is the Greenland Sled Dog, which lives in human communities north of the Arctic circle on both the east and west coasts of Greenland.
The ancestors of the Greenland Sled Dogs were first brought to the region nearly a thousand years ago by the Thule people, who are the ancestors of the modern Inuit. Genetic studies published in 2015 established that these dogs are not a separate breed from the Canadian Eskimo Dog, but that the population is distinct from Siberian Huskies, Alaskan Huskies and Malamutes.
Greenland Dogs are 20-27 inches high at the shoulders, with males typically in the larger half of that range and females in the smaller half. Dogs of both sexes are powerfully built with wide wedge-shaped heads and muscular legs with short fur. These dogs have a double coat and very small ears, presumably to help prevent frostbite. When they lie down and curl up, their tail often covers the nose, though it is held high and across the back when standing. Many dogs have a triangular patch across the shoulders.
The Greenland Sled Dog population dropped 40 percent to 15,000 individuals from 2002 to 2016. There are a number of reasons why this breed is in such serious decline. Infectious canine diseases such as canine parvovirus and distemper have caused the deaths of many dogs. The increased use of snowmobiles means that the dogs are not valued as they once were. One reason that snowmobiles are more common now is that the cost to feed dogs has increased. Industrial fish waste that used to be used in feed is now increasingly used for human consumption, meaning that people have to pay more for dog food. Additionally, climate change leading to the loss of sea ice has led to a decrease in forays onto the ice to hunt and fish, which means that demand for sled dogs is down.
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For many wild animals at risk of declining populations, it can be very challenging to increase breeding, but that’s far easier to do with domestic animals. If the dogs are highly valued, there will be is a strong incentive for people to breed them. Like all sled dogs, Greenland Sled Dogs are prized for their ability to work hard and travel long distances. Many polar and Antarctic expeditions have used this breed because of their great endurance and ability to pull heavy loads across cold, harsh landscapes.
Their relationship with humans over thousands of years has created a unique sled dog culture that is worth preserving as a part of Greenland’s identity. Residents are extremely proud of having a living sled dog culture, and many are alarmed to see it threatened. If the dog population declines too much, the culture (one that is intrinsically linked to a lifestyle involving the relationship between people and dogs) will be lost. That is why there is a push by officials in Greenland and in Denmark to award UNESCO World Heritage protection to the 4000 square kilometer unique hunting area of Western Greenland. If the culture of the area is officially recognized as valuable, the increased attention (and possibly funding) by the rest of the world could help the dogs who are so much a part of that culture—both historically and currently.