Protecting Alaska’s Porcupine Caribou

Grace Lacher

History of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
Created in 1960 to protect the intrinsic and recreational values of Alaskan ecosystems, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge represented pure, untouched wilderness. Now consisting of 19 million acres, ANWR stands as the largest wildlife refuge in the United States. Nine million acres of the refuge are designated as “wilderness areas,” a specific category of heavily protected federal land. As stated in the Wilderness Act of 1964, these wilderness areas are “area(s) where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” With this label, these regions are only open to non-motorized recreation and scientific research, allowing animals and their habitats to exist as they would in their most natural condition. The original motivation to protect this particular tract of land comes from its incredible ecosystems. The refuge is home to almost 200 different bird species; grizzly, polar, and black bears; wolves; musk oxen; and numerous other animals. These creatures have lived lives undisturbed by humans, without development or human activity threatening their wellbeing. 

Current Threat
However, not all sections of ANWR received the same degree of federal protection as the wilderness areas did. The Coastal Plain along the northern coast of the refuge was designated as a “study area,” meaning that the region would be looked into as a possible location for oil drilling. Such an act threatened the rich wildlife that the refuge was originally designed to protect. It wasn’t until the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act was passed in 2017 that the Coastal Plain was officially opened for drilling. As its name would imply, the legislation was not focused on the environmental resources of the refuge and mostly included various tax provisions. However, passed alongside these provisions was a section that legalized development for drilling in the previously untouched Coastal Plain. Thankfully, ground has not been broken – the land has yet to be officially leased out to oil companies as of the writing of this post, which means there is still a chance to stop the destruction of one of the world’s most pristine environments. Perhaps there is reason for optimism as the Arctic Cultural and Coastal Plain Act was passed in the House of Representatives in September 2019, prohibiting oil production in the Coastal Plain. The bill is currently up for debate in the Senate.

Porcupine Caribou
Among the hundreds of species who call the refuge home, one in particular holds a much larger stake in the drilling debate. ANWR is home to almost 200,000 Porcupine Caribou, which despite their name hold no resemblance to the much smaller porcupine. These caribou are a migratory species, meaning that over the course of the year the herds travel throughout ANWR and into Canada – the “porcupine” in their name actually refers to the Porcupine River that runs through the herd’s range. In fact, these caribou have the longest migration route of any land animal. As part of their migration, in early spring the herds travel to a coastal area in preparation for the birth of their new calves. While the specific area can change from year to year, the herds frequently choose to calve in the refuge’s Coastal Plain as the area is relatively safe from predators and overflows with vegetation on which the young mothers feed. Conservationists and many Alaskans are incredibly concerned with the way the proposed oil production could affect the caribou. Industrial development could prevent them from accessing the area, forcing them to live in dangerous, undesirable places. With their central calving ground opened up for drilling, the caribou herds are at risk for decreased calving rates and population loss. 

Cultural importance
An indigenous population known as the Gwich’in also depends on the refuge’s natural landscape. The opening of the Coastal Plain has sparked outrage from the Gwich’in, specifically for the way it could affect the Porcupine Caribou. The caribou have long held an important role in Gwich’in lifestyle, as they make up the tribe’s subsistence diet, as well as tools and clothing. Alongside these practical uses, the caribou possess a great cultural significance. The Gwich’in are incredibly connected to the caribou with the animals acting as a symbol for their culture and a source of spiritual guidance. The community has depended on the Porcupine Caribou for thousands of years with their villages strategically built along the animals’ migration path. As drilling threatens the caribou populations, it also threatens the Gwich’in’s ability to keep their culture and traditions alive. Gwich’in leaders testified in front of the congressional Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources that opening up the Coastal Plain for drilling would result in “cultural genocide.”

Public Response
In past years Gwich’in leaders, environmental groups, and many others have taken to the streets of Washington, D.C. and Alaska to protest the potential drilling. As it stands, the government is on track to begin leasing out the land in December of 2020 unless the U.S. Senate passes the Arctic Cultural and Coastal Plain Protection Act. Many organizations continue to fight against the drilling and are taking action to try and prevent irreversible damage to the Alaskan ecosystems and the species that depend on them. Patagonia has launched a campaign to protect the Coastal Plain and the Gwich’in and is collecting donations for the Gwich’in Steering Committee, a Gwich’in organization formed to combat the threat of oil drilling. The Steering Committee has also created a petition to gather support for their cause. Links to donate and sign the petition can be found here. The National Resource Defense Council is also working to protect ANWR and has developed a letter that can be sent to President Trump and the Interior Secretary to voice your opposition to the drilling. Find it here.

Sources: ABC News, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Alaska Wilderness League, Arctic Power, Audubon Society, Canada’s National Observer, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Environment America, Gwich’in Steering Committee, InsideClimate News, The Journal, Science Magazine, US Department of Justice