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Being Caribou: Protecting the Porcupine Caribou Herd

Protection one of Alaska and Canada's largest caribou herds is so close, yet so far away.

(Photo: Karsten Heuer/Leanne Allison)

Conservation groups have rallied to protect the Porcupine herd for over 80 years.

The push to protect the calving grounds of the Porcupine Caribou Herd isn’t new. For the past 80 years advocates such as Olaus Murie, Jimmy Carter, Robert Redford, as well as a number of national and international conservation groups, have rallied alongside the Gwich’in First Nation to protect this sacred section of the Alaskan Coast. But now, despite tremendous international support for protection, pro-development forces within the Republican-controlled US government threaten to unravel the millions of hours and dollars that have been invested in this decades-old conservation effort. A brief history follows.


In the early 1920s, the land known today as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was just being “discovered” by non-natives. Olaus Murie and his wife Margaret explored the drainages of Alaska’s Brook’s Range and, after marvelling at the wildlife they saw, joined Forest Service employee Robert Marshall to recommend that almost the entire area north of the Yukon River be set aside for wildlife and recreation. Times of war factored into the equation. In the 1940s the US Department of the Interior reserved all lands north of the Brooks Range for national defence. Public support for a wildlife reserve continued to grow, but so too did the call to open up the north to industrial development. In 1957, Secretary of the Interior Fred Seaton opened up 20 million acres of the North Slope (including the area around Prudhoe Bay) to oil and gas exploration.


Support for an Arctic reserve grew into a national issue in 1960, leading Secretary Seaton to establish the Arctic National Wildlife Range through executive proclamation. For the first time, the Porcupine Caribou Herd actually had a portion of its range formally protected. Meanwhile, North America’s largest oil field was discovered and development started just west of the reserve at Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay.

Across the border, the Prudhoe Bay oil rush gave the Canadian government hopes of similar riches. Justice Thomas Berger was sent to the Yukon and Northwest territories to hold hearings on future development and he came back with an unexpected story: he concluded that native cultures and the integrity of the land must not be discarded in favour of resource development. Amongst his recommendations was a need to protect habitat for the Porcupine Caribou Herd.

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