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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.


Back in the US, President Carter signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in 1980 which doubled the size of the Arctic Range and renamed it the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The entire refuge was designated as wilderness with one key exception: section 1002 of the act, a last minute compromise to ensure the bill was passed, outlined that additional research would be needed before Congress could designate the area as wilderness. The “1002 lands” as this 1.5 million acre parcel came to be known, formed the core of the caribou herd’s calving grounds, but were also suspected of harbouring vast reserves of oil.

Canada responded to Carter’s conservation efforts in 1984, when, with the co-operation of the Inuvialuit people, the Canadian government protected their portion of the caribou calving grounds by establishing Ivvavik National Park adjacent to the Arctic Refuge. Vuntut National Park, also in the Yukon, was created a few years later in co-operation with the Vuntut Gwich’in First Nation, thereby protecting vital spring, summer and fall habitat for the herd on the Canadian side.


With the creation of Ivvavik and Vuntut national parks in Canada, and the Arctic Refuge in the United States, only one critical portion of the Porcupine Caribou Herd’s range – the calving grounds – hadn’t been protected. Conservation groups, along with key scientists and the Gwich’in people, pushed hard for protection, but supporting bills never got passed. Then, in the early 2000s, a turn for the worse: pro-development Republicans took control of both the US Congress and Senate, leaving little opposition to the overtures of ex-oilman-come-president George Bush Jr. to open the 1002 lands to exploration. Current tensions with Iraq and uncertainty over traditional sources of foreign oil have only served to strengthen his desire to develop domestic stocks, regardless of the ecological and cultural costs.


After 80 years of effort by Americans and Canadians, the range of the Porcupine Caribou Herd has eluded development for the most part, but this will all mean very little if the most critical habitat of the Porcupine Caribou Herd – the calving ground on the Arctic Refuge’s coastal plain – is not secured. Not only will one of the world’s last great mammal migrations be at risk of disappearing, but so too will one of North America’s last true subsistence aboriginal cultures (see Caribou People Backgrounder).

What stands to be gained for putting an entire Arctic ecosystem, complete with its people, at risk? According to US Geological Survey estimates, somewhere between five months and one year of the total US demand for oil.


Sooner or later, oil supplies will run out, forcing people to conserve or switch to other energy sources. Why put off this inevitable next step for only a few more months of cheap oil? Why not deal with today’s problems today, instead of tomorrow?

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, increasing fuel efficiency standards for new vehicles by just 3 miles per gallon would save five times the amount of oil the refuge is likely to yield. Achieving an average of 39 miles per gallon would save 51 billion barrels of oil over the next 50 years – more than 15 times the likely yield from the Arctic Refuge. Honda, Toyota, and others are already selling hybrid gasoline-electric vehicles that get more than 50 miles to the gallon. Ford has announced plans to use this hybrid technology to improve the fuel economy of two of its sport utility vehicle (SUV) models. Decreasing fuel consumption would not only benefit the caribou, but would help solve such global crises as climate change and ozone depletion as well.


Many have called for an international park to be established in the Western Arctic, similar to the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park that straddles the Montana-Alberta border. That park, created in 1932, demonstrates the good will between the US and Canada to preserve shared wildlife populations. Such a park, which would include the Arctic Refuge, the 1002 lands, and Canada’s Ivvavik and Vuntut national parks, would not only bring 80 years of Canadian and American conservation effort to fruition, but would also ensure the longevity of a transboundary caribou population whose fate determines the future of hundreds of thousands of plants, animals, and aboriginal people on both sides of the Canada-US border.

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