Canadians are being urged to fight against a push by U.S. President Donald Trump to fast-track drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, in the calving grounds of Porcupine caribou herd.
The Trump administration, which last fall slipped a provision allowing drilling in the Arctic Refuge into an unrelated tax bill, is forging ahead with plans to prepare for a mandatory environmental review of the decision and the Bureau of Land Management will be accepting comments from Americans and Canadians for the next 60 days to map out the scope of the review.
The Porcupine caribou herd, with up to 200,000 animals, undergoes the longest land mammal migration on earth, travelling 2,400 kilometres between their calving grounds in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, through the boreal forest and into the Yukon and Northwest Territories
Gwich’in communities — home to Indigenous people who have subsisted off the land for millennia — call the calving grounds “the sacred place where life begins.”
Now, with the future of the herd and the people who rely on the caribou under threat, the Gwich’in people, along with non-governmental agencies and environmental groups are urging Canadians to speak out and speak loudly, especially as the Arctic is already being affected by climate change.
‘A deeply Canadian issue’
“This is a deeply Canadian issue,” said Chris Rider, executive director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society Yukon Chapter.
“Disturbing this fragile ecosystem could have a disastrous effect on the health of the Porcupine caribou herd and the Gwich’in. We need to tell the Trump administration that the only option at this point is simple: stop. Oil and gas development has no place in the heart of the Porcupine caribou’s calving grounds.”
Canada’s federal government objected last year to drilling in the refuge, which is also home to polar bears and hundreds of migratory bird species, but now, with the Trump administration poised to sell leases in the refuge as soon as possible, a public outcry is needed, say opponents of the drilling plans.
One tool could be a treaty signed between the government of Brian Mulroney and Ronald Reagan in 1987. The treaty requires both governments to “take appropriate action to conserve the Porcupine caribou herd and its habitat.”
‘Stand with the Gwich’in for what is right’
Dana Tizya-Tramm, a Vuntut Gwitchin councillor in Old Crow, Yukon, and the lead on Arctic Refuge work for the First Nation, said drilling in the refuge would threaten one of the last healthy, barren-ground caribou herds on earth and jeopardize an entire way of life.
“The needless threat of developing the Porcupine caribou herd’s calving grounds on the coastal plain of Alaska has now elevated this issue to involve all of North America. It is not just the Gwich’in or Indigenous peoples’ loss, but all of North America’s last healthy caribou herd whose future is now in question,” he said.
The push for drilling signals to the Gwich’in that their traditional knowledge and warnings about the stability of Arctic ecosystems are disregarded by U.S. leadership, Tizya-Tramm said.
“Heed the call, stand with the Gwich’in for what is right. We must each ask ourselves what is more important to us, life or oil,” he said.
Caribou herds in peril
In Canada, caribou numbers have dropped by more than 50 per cent, with some herds wiped out and others declining by more than 80 per cent, but the Porcupine herd is the exception, largely due to a relatively intact range.
Caribou are incredibly sensitive to light and sound and any construction in their calving grounds, during one of the most vulnerable phases of their lives, could lead them to abandon the area altogether, Rider said.
The race to overcome barriers to drilling, such as the necessity for an environmental review, is seen as the Trump administration trying to ensure leases are sold quickly and work starts well before the 2020 election, making it difficult to roll back legislation.
However, U.S environmental groups are vowing to fight all the way and believe that a hefty number of Americans are on their side.
“Most Americans oppose the Trump administration’s headlong rush to drill and desecrate this sacred place, which will inevitably end up in court,” said Jenny Keatinge of Defenders of Wildlife.
Jamie Williams, president of The Wilderness Society, a U.S.-based land conservation organization, said that by pushing for a lease sale next year, the administration is admitting that they have no intention of seriously evaluating the negative impacts of oil development on wildlife, even though the science clearly indicates there will be significant effects.
Adam Kolton, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, said the Trump administration’s secretive work to push for Arctic drilling is a disgrace.
“When we have an administration using Twitter to fire cabinet secretaries and rewrite plans for the entirety of America’s coastline, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised at the reckless, warp speed approach it is taking to put up oil rigs in one of the most iconic and wildest places left in America,” he said.
“Forget minimal effort, they can’t even be bothered to fake the effort needed to assess the impacts of leasing on wildlife and the environment or meaningfully consult with the Gwich’in people whose culture is at stake,” he said.
Meanwhile, the B.C. government is asking for public input on a three-year, $27-million provincial caribou recovery program.
The money will be used to build a science-based approach to preserving B.C.’s 54 herds, as the number of woodland caribou in B.C. has declined from 40,000 to less than 19,000 since the early 1900s, says a government news release.