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Gwich’in Gear Up to Fight for Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Revived plans to drill for oil at the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd are prompting outcries from Indigenous people with ancient ties to the herd.

Written by Emily Gertz Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
The Porcupine caribou herd crosses a river.Gary Braasch/National Wildlife Federation/Flickr

By including $1.8 billion in oil and gas revenues from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in its 2018 budget, the Trump administration has set out to dismantle former president Barack Obama’s conservation and climate legacies in the American Arctic.

But the Indigenous Gwich’in nation of northeastern Alaska and northwestern Canada is mobilizing, as it has in the past, to fight to keep the refuge wild.

Gwich’in survival and spirituality have centered for around 20,000 years on the Porcupine caribou herd, which annually migrates 400 miles (650km) from its wintering grounds in the contemporary Canadian Yukon to the coastal plain in Alaska’s northeast corner, today a part of the Arctic refuge.

Here the herd (which was just under 200,000 strong in 2013 according to a count by Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game) bears its calves and nurtures them through their earliest and most vulnerable weeks of life.

But the fossil-fuel industry, with the support of successive Republican presidents and Alaska lawmakers, has for decades coveted this same swathe of coastal plain for oil and gas drilling. Known formally as the “Section 1002 Area,” and colloquially as “the Ten-Oh-Two,” these 1.5 million acres (600,000 hectares) have been in some form of protected status since 1960. But they are not among the 8 million acres (3.2 million hectares) of the refuge awarded the federal wilderness designation that would protect them from all development.

“Our people have always lived in the north Yukon part of northeastern Alaska and into the Northwest Territories [of Canada],” said Norma Kassi, cofounder of the Arctic Institute of Community-Based Research. As a member of the Yukon Legislative Assembly from 1985 to 1992, and a founder of the Gwich’in Steering Committee in the late 1980s, Kassi helped lead opposition to Reagan-era efforts to drill for oil and gas in the 1002 Area. Kassi won a Goldman Environmental Prize in 2002 for that work, along with fellow Gwich’in Sarah James and the late Jonathon Solomon.

“Everything we do is connected to the health of the Porcupine River caribou herd,” which is “the nation’s main source of food, ceremony and culture,” said Kassi. “So therefore it’s a very sacred part of our being.”

Sarah James from Arctic Village, Alaska, marches behind a flag for the Gwich’in nation in Washington, D.C., in 2005 to protest plans to drill for oil in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge. (Flickr/yeimaya)

With the high prices of most grocery-store food in this part of the Arctic, the Porcupine caribou still make up a large part of the subsistence diet in Gwich’in communities, Kassi notes, even though the problem of long-term persistent organic pollutants in the Arctic food web has taken its toll.

Drilling in the 1002 Area would put immense pressure on both the herd and her people, she said, even as climate change is creating new sources of mercury in the environment, and altering traditional hunting and fishing grounds.

“Food insecurity is a crisis among all the Arctic regions and it’s also here as well in the Yukon,” said Kassi. “The creek beds and the spawning areas are melting away because the permafrost is melting and it’s becoming murky,” inhibiting salmon from laying and fertilizing eggs. As well, over the past decade, rain has started to fall during the winter, which freezes into a hard crust of ice that prevents the caribou from digging down to forage on lichens under the snow.

During warm-weather months, willows are starting to displace the lichens, said Kassi, while black-fly and mosquito populations have surged, making summer grazing more difficult and lowering the survival rates of caribou calves.

With nearly three decades of experience with American presidents to draw on, Kassi was not surprised that the Trump administration would try to overturn Obama-era protections for the refuge. “We’re back to square one [but] I’m not afraid. We’re not afraid,” she said. “We’re going to continue fighting, we’re going to continue educating. We’re going to continue bringing awareness to the world.”

Gwich’in in both Canada and the United States are united in opposition to the Trump administration’s plans, she added. “There’s approximately, right now, 14 communities of the Gwich’in nation, approximately 7,000 to 8,000 left. And so we maintain very strong connections and dialogue with each other for survival,” Kassi said. “The border means nothing to us.”

While the Republican congressional majority in 2015 rejected Obama’s call to designate the entire 20-million-acre (8.1-million-hectare) Arctic refuge as a federal wilderness, putting the entire area permanently off limits to industrial development, Obama’s interior department managed the area as if it had those protections.

Trump’s interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, in late May formally tasked the agency with “updating assessments of undiscovered, technically recoverable oil and natural gas resources of Alaska’s North Slope, focusing on federal lands including … the Section 1002 Area of the ANWR.

Alaska’s powerful senior senator, Lisa Murkowski, enthusiastically welcomed the move. “This secretarial order is exactly the type of announcement that so many Alaskans have been asking for: a smart, timely step to restore access to our lands, throughput to our Trans-Alaska Pipeline and growth to our economy under reasonable regulations that do not sacrifice environmental protections,” said Murkowski in a statement. (The senator’s office did not respond to Arctic Deeply’s request for an interview.)

Alaskan Bernadette Demientieff, the executive director of the Fairbanks-based Gwich’in Steering Committee, said she is disappointed with Murkowski’s support for drilling on the coastal plain.

Demientieff described meeting with Murkowski earlier this year, and discussing how oil and gas development have harmed some caribou populations in Alaska. She said she stressed the importance of the refuge’s coastal plain to the Porcupine herd and the Gwich’in nation.

“Then she comes to Alaska during the Arctic Council meeting,” said Demientieff, “and said she was proud to put the pipelines through Alaska, and that none of the caribou herds have been affected. I had just got finished showing her what the research shows, what the science shows. And she got up there and said something that was misleading and untrue.”

Like their European and Russian reindeer relatives, North American caribou herds are sensitive to disturbances on their migration routes and seasonal habitats, including roads, logging, mining and pipelines. A majority of scientific studies since the mid-1980s show that both species spend less time in areas within 3 miles (5km) of any human disturbance, including infrastructure, even if those lands are traditional migration, foraging or calving areas. Recent research has begun to show that this avoidance, along with climate-driven habitat changes, is leading to lowered survival rates.

According to a 2002 summary of the science by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), meanwhile, the conditions on ANWR’s undisturbed coastal plain are uniquely suited to the survival of Porcupine caribou calves.

“Predators are less abundant on the calving grounds, so the young calves are safer at a time when they are too weak to escape from wolves and bears,” the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service notes on its website, referencing the USGS report. “The preferred calving grounds also have an abundance of highly nutritious new plant growth, which enables the mother caribou to produce rich milk for their calves. This is very important as it allows the calves to grow rapidly so that they can escape from predators and harassing insects, and keep up with the herd as it migrates to the winter range.”

Demientieff recently returned to Alaska from three weeks in the southwestern U.S., where she met with other Indigenous leaders as well as scientists, environmentalists, lawmakers and the general public to raise support for stopping drilling in the refuge.

“I feel like our homelands are being attacked,” she said. “My identity is not up for negotiation. My senator is not listening to me or my people, so I’m having to travel across the country, to other senators, because ours won’t listen.”

Demientieff’s trip to the Lower 48 left her guardedly optimistic. “I’ve been meeting with a lot of good people,” she said. “I’ve been meeting with Indigenous tribes, I’ve been meeting with people who connect with the land, the water protectors, water and land management. I’m worried but I’m ready. If anything good comes from this administration it’s going to be the unity amongst the people.

“I look forward to that day when we stand together again in the United States.”

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