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Being Caribou: 350 Miles On Skis

We follow a giant, endangered caribou herd from the Yukon to Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Part 2.

(Photo: Karsten Heuer/Leanne Allison)

Bear tracks lead the way.

The adventuresome team left the herd’s Yukon wintering grounds on skis at the beginning of April and since become living testaments of a caribou’s harsh life. Both lost ten pounds and nurse swollen feet from frostbite.

“I’ve been on long trips before,” said Heuer who, in 1998-99, hiked 2,200 miles along the Rocky Mountains from Yellowstone to the Yukon, “but never across such rugged country, through such extreme weather, at such a sustained pace. And to think that the majority of the animals we’ve been following are pregnant!”

Some of the pregnant cows of the 123,000-member herd have already started giving birth, and the majority are expected to drop their calves in the coming week, most of them in the strip of unprotected land on the coastal plain. According to scientists, the area is critical. Not only does it provide the caribou with a temporary haven from predators and insects, and a good supply of nutrient-rich forage for the lactating cows, but it also comprises some of the best bird nesting habitat on the continent. Its also home for the densest concentrations of land dens for polar bears using the Beaufort Sea.

“This could be one of the last years this caribou herd doesn’t encounter the pipelines, vehicles, roads, airstrips, and toxic spills that have affected caribou and other wildlife elsewhere in the Western Arctic,” said Heuer. “That’s pretty sobering given the 27,000-year history of this migration and the fact that 95 percent of the rest of the Alaskan Arctic coast is already slated for oil and gas exploration and development. A six-month supply of oil hardly justifies what stands to be lost here. Given what we’ve seen so far, it just doesn’t measure up.”

“I’m not sure the upcoming bug season or the return trip to the herd’s wintering grounds will be any easier,” said Allison, referring to their plans to continue traveling with the caribou for the next three and a half months. “But whatever the challenges, I’m confident we’ll get through them so long as the caribou are leading the way. They are great teachers in patience and perseverance. Their spirit is so uplifting.”

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