Being Caribou: Protecting the Porcupine Caribou Herd

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

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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.


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.