A new study finds that reindeer populations are on the decline, due in part to climate change. This makes bad news not only for Santa, but for all of us, as the grazing habits of reindeer actually help keep earth’s climate in balance and fewer reindeer in the world may contribute to global warming. The study, published last month in the Journal for Nature Conservation, documents the marked decline of China’s reindeer population—a reduction of over 25% since the 1970s.

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The problem isn’t only in China: reindeer populations throughout Alaska, Russia, and Canada are suffering, too. Jeff Flocken of the International Fund for Wildlife estimates that worldwide, the population has decreased as much as 60% from historic highs.

Why? Inbreeding, poaching, predation and tourism, are four major reasons. Climate change is a fifth. Warming temperatures have led to soil degradation and erosion, as well as a loss of original wetlands, where reindeer like to browse. With less range to browse, reindeer have to travel greater distances to find accessible food; as a result, they’re suffering from malnutrition and starvation, and reproducing less often.

Related: High numbers of radioactive reindeer appear in Norway

Bad news for Santa and his famous employees, to be sure. And other studies demonstrate that the news gets worse. Fewer reindeer leads to less intensive grazing of Arctic tundra, which leads to more abundant growth of shrubs and trees. Shrubs and trees absorb more heat than low-lying plants; more heat absorption in turn leads to more warming. Also, less grazing on the tundra allows invasive species more leeway to spread.

What can be done? For starters, researchers suggest moving reindeer higher up on the Red List of Threatened Species of the World Conservation Union. Right now, they’re listed as a species of “least concern,” but this is based on a 2008 assessment. Additionally, China might consider creating nature preserves within traditional reindeer ranges, in order to help protect further incursion by tourists, poachers, and industrial development.

+ Journal for Nature Conservation

Via Climate Progress

Photos via Shutterstock