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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.

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This is second report flown in from the expedition. Karsten Heuer and Leanne Allison started their expedition in the Porcupine Caribou Herd’s wintering range near Old Crow, Yukon on April 8, and hope to travel with members of the 123,000-strong herd to their endangered calving grounds in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and back again.

The purpose of the 2,000-kilometer journey by ski and foot is to understand what’s at stake in the decades-old debate over whether or not to open up the herd’s calving grounds to oil and gas development.

The Arctic – After six weeks and 350 miles of skiing across remote mountain ranges, past wolf packs, hungry grizzly bears, through blizzards, and icy rivers, Karsten Heuer and his wife, Leanne Allison, have reached the endangered calving grounds of the Porcupine Caribou Herd. Just in time too: Thousands of pregnant cows are now giving birth to calves.

“What these animals have led us through over the past six weeks is more than amazing,” said Allison, who will produce a documentary about their journey. “We’ve forded rivers with floating ice, skied across razor-thin mountain ridges, kicked steps down avalanche slopes, braved ground blizzards, traveled with and were stalked by one of the many grizzly bears shadowing the herd.”

“I’m not sure what we will find in the heart of their calving grounds, but it’s got to be pretty special,” said Heuer, a wildlife biologist and park ranger on leave from his job to do the trip. “Why else would they go through all this?”

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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