America’s Presidential Election Will Decide the Fate of This Caribou Herd

If oil exploration begins in the Arctic Refuge after the fall election, it could threaten the caribou and the Gwich’in people who hunt them.

caribou calving grounds -arctic refugePhoto by John Schwieder/Alamy Stock Photo

The calving grounds

The caribou cow gives birth on her feet. She stands with legs wide apart, or turns on the spot, shuffling in slow circles, craning her long neck to watch as her calf emerges. The calf, when it comes, does so hooves first. It climbs into the world fully extended, like a diver stretching toward the water. The calf doesn’t know it, but the land on which it is born is one of the most contentious stretches of wilderness in North America.

The calf takes its first steps within minutes, stumbling awkwardly to its feet. Within 24 hours, it is able to walk a kilometre or more. Soon, if it survives long enough, it will be capable of swimming whitewater rivers, outrunning wolves, and trotting overland for great distances every day. Its life will offer myriad dangers and only the rarest respite; for the caribou, staying alive means staying on the move.

The days and weeks immediately after its birth are critical. That’s why its mother will have sought out a place of relative safety before it arrived. That’s why, every year, tens of thousands of heavily pregnant caribou cows return to the places where they were born.

For the Porcupine caribou herd, 218,000 strong, that means a long march through snow-choked mountains to one of two calving grounds. One, lesser used, is in Canada, in the northwestern corner of the Yukon Territory between the Firth and Babbage rivers. It’s protected by the invisible boundaries of Ivvavik National Park.

The other, the most commonly used by the herd, is a small slice of land just across the border in northeastern Alaska, a flat patch tucked between the Brooks Range and the Beaufort Sea. The land is unassuming but critical: when, every so often, the herd fails to make it to the calving grounds on time, their calves’ mortality rate can climb by as much as 20 per cent.

This primary calving and post-calving ground lies within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but unlike its Canadian counterpart across the border, it has not been permanently sealed off from large-scale industrial activity. Instead, for over 40 years, a debate has raged about its status.

On one side are those who want the oil that could lie below the calving grounds extracted. On the other are those who want the area protected from industry forever. The Porcupine caribou herd is caught between the two, its fate tied up in Washington committee rooms and the fine print of legislation. And intimately connected to the caribou is the Gwich’in Nation, roughly 9,000 people scattered across Alaska and northern Canada. In fighting to protect the caribou, they are fighting for their own survival.

Creating wilderness

In 1953, the Sierra Club Bulletin ran an article by National Park Service staffers George Collins and Lowell Sumner titled “Northeast Arctic: The Last Great Wilderness.” Collins and Sumner had recently travelled around Alaska, and their article was a call to permanently preserve the area that is now the Arctic Refuge.

Seven years later, Collins and Sumner got a watered-down version of their wish: 8.9 million acres of land in northeast Alaska was designated as the Arctic National Wildlife Range. Under the original terms of the Arctic Refuge’s establishment, however, some industrial activities were still permitted, and later that decade, the march toward wilderness preservation in Alaska began to face competition. In 1977, the Trans-Alaska pipeline system was completed, and Alaska’s oil began to flow from the Arctic to an ocean port.

Then, in December 1980, the United States Congress passed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. Among other things, it more than doubled the size of the Arctic Refuge, to about 19 million acres, formally designating 8 million of those acres as “wilderness”—defined as a place where “the earth and its community of life are untrammelled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

The act also set aside 1.5 million non-wilderness acres on the refuge’s northern edge for further study—an area of the Arctic Refuge’s coastal plain that encompasses the calving and post-calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd. Section 1002 of the act outlined the land assessment process needed before oil and gas exploration could be authorized, leaving the door open for development.

Even with this allowance, the move was seen as a conservationist victory. Simply by continuing to exist in its natural state, the belief went, the Arctic Refuge would provide an example to the world of what once was. It’s a beautiful idea. But there’s one key omission in this framing: the Gwich’in people who, for at least 20,000 years, have been much more than visitors to the land.

Arctic Village

In the summer of 2018, I visited the Gwich’in community of Arctic Village during caribou hunting season. Arctic Village, or Vashraii K’oo, is home to roughly 150 people. Reachable only by plane, it lies along the east fork of the Chandalar River. Cross it, and you enter the Arctic Refuge.

The permanent settlement here is only a century old. Within living memory, most Gwich’in residents of the region still lived nomadically or semi-nomadically, following the seasons and the caribou, hunting, trapping and fishing. Today, the village still depends on the wilderness that surrounds it. Hunting and fishing are critical sources of food. The small store on the corner of the village’s main intersection is thinly stocked with alarmingly expensive non-perishables. With everything flown in by small plane, and flights often cancelled by weather, fresh food is a rarity.

Late on the evening of my second day there, two hunters shot four caribou outside of town. They brought the field-dressed animals home, where it’s custom for them to be blessed. The next morning, the women of the household began their part. By the time I arrived the next night, most of the work was done. A hide was tacked up, skin side out, on the wall of the house to dry. Their smoker was filled with deep-red cuts of meat, the slabs of ribs and backstraps, and lacy skeins of white fat, all hanging in the hazy darkness.

Virtually every part of the caribou would be put to use. The heads would be boiled or roasted, the meat stewed, boiled, fried or salted and dried. The hides would be stretched and dried for use as is, or tanned to make into clothing. Even the hooves, boiled to extract a thin gelatin in hungry times, would be saved to make into traditional rattles.

The antlers, used in the old days to make everything from arrow points to cutlery, were less needed now, in the age of stainless steel and cheap plastic. They hung above lintels or were stacked in front yards all over Arctic Village, silently testifying to the bond between the caribou and the Gwich’in.

The Gwich’in Gathering

In June 1988, Arctic Village hosted the first Gwich’in Gathering of the modern era, documented in the 1988 film Gwich’in Niintsyaa. People had come in from all over: from Old Crow, in the Yukon; from the villages of the Mackenzie Delta, in the Northwest Territories; from Venetie, just a short hop away; and from Fairbanks, far to the south. In the old days, gatherings would be called in times of crisis. The Gwich’in would come together across their traditional ground to work out a way forward. Now, for the first time in more than a century, they felt compelled to do so again.

Relatives and old friends who’d been separated for decades by an international boundary to which they’d never agreed were reunited. They talked of many things, but mostly they talked about Vadzaih, the caribou, and Izhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit—“the sacred place where life begins.” The birthplace and nursery grounds.

The establishment of the Arctic Refuge years earlier had far from settled the question of development in the region, and by 1987, a U.S. Department of the Interior report recommended that Congress clear the way for potential drilling in the 1002 area, despite the report’s scientific assessment that development risked major impacts to the Porcupine caribou herd and its habitats.

The Gwich’in were sufficiently alarmed to call the gathering, and the event was galvanizing. Sarah James was there that day and is now an elder and spokesperson on the Arctic Refuge for the Neets’aii Gwich’in tribes, which own 1.8 million acres of tribal land, including Arctic Village. At 76, she has spent decades working to preserve the calving grounds and described the gathering to me as “a rebirth of the Nation.”

After the hugs and the tears, the dancing and the songs, after all the speeches, the chiefs of the 15 Gwich’in villages sequestered themselves to draft a resolution. “The Porcupine (River) caribou herd remains essential to meet the nutritional, cultural and spiritual needs of our People,” it read. “Their availability to Gwich’in communities and the very future of our People are endangered by proposed oil and gas exploration.”

The Gwich’in committed themselves to a long, hard fight to protect the herd’s nursery grounds. As the gathering wound down, an elder offered a prayer in Gwich’in. “Heavenly father,” he said, “have mercy on me. It is hard for me to live as I used to. This is why I am asking for your help. Have mercy on me, if it is your will. Help us. With your loving kindness, help us all.”

“We’ll never give up.”

It wasn’t long after the 1988 gathering that the Gwich’in faced a major challenge. In March 1989, a bill to allow leasing across the 1002 area passed a Senate subcommittee. But then, eight days later, Exxon Valdez tore open in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, spilling millions of gallons of crude oil. The Edmonton Journal called the spill a “gift” to the caribou. Juxtaposed against images of oil-slicked seals and birds, the Senate subcommittee bill withered.

So too did every other such bill for nearly 30 years—until 2017, when President Donald Trump signed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act into law. The new act contained a provision to remove prohibition on oil and gas drilling and development on the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge, formally opening the area.

The Gwich’in haven’t given up. “We do have a power as a people,” James told me. The hope, when I visited, was to stave off drilling at least until the next American election, in November 2020, when a friendlier administration might win. “Give us more time!” James added. To her, preserving the calving grounds isn’t a conservation issue. It is a human rights issue. “We’ll never give up,” she says.

It’s also an international issue. Several thousand members of the herd are hunted on the Canadian side each year, where a modest road network and a handful of larger communities offer greater access than in roadless northern Alaska. In July 1987, the federal governments of Canada and the United States signed a bilateral treaty dedicated to the protection and conservation of the Porcupine caribou herd. That treaty remains in effect today, and several levels of Canadian government are warily watching the potential for oil development in the Arctic Refuge.

The Yukon government’s current minister of the environment, Pauline Frost, is a Gwich’in woman from Old Crow, the fly-in Yukon community in the heart of the Porcupine herd’s range. (The Porcupine River that gives the herd its name runs right through town.) An important and ongoing item in her portfolio right now is also personal: Frost took her first caribou at age 12, and she still hunts with her daughter when she’s at home.

Frost told me that she is in close touch with her counterparts in the Northwest Territories—also home to several communities that depend on the herd—as well as in Alaska, Ottawa and Washington. “We are clearly concerned,” she told me. “We have an international agreement that we signed off on in good faith.”

And it isn’t only the Gwich’in people who stand to lose if the caribou’s calving grounds are put at risk. Mike Suitor is the Yukon government’s North Slope and migratory biologist. The North Slope includes the northernmost part of the Yukon and stretches from Alaska to the NWT border—it’s where much of the Canadian portion of the Porcupine herd’s range lies. Suitor emphasized the herd’s role in the wider ecosystem. In addition to humans, bears, wolves, wolverines and golden eagles—just for a start—rely on the caribou. “They’re born to be eaten,” he told me.

The herd today is healthy and in a growth phase of its natural cycle, but Suitor warns that the Porcupine herd grows and declines slowly. “Unfortunately,” he said, “if the herd gets into a hole, it’s going to be very difficult for it to dig itself out.”

Dinner time

I wanted to see the calving and the caribou hunt for myself. I thought that seeing the animals travelling from birth to death would help me understand the precise nature of the connection between them. This, I thought, was how I would understand what was truly at stake in the fight over the Arctic Refuge.

For a number of weather-related reasons, I didn’t get to see either birth or death. But I did get to partake in the final piece of the journey.

Over my days in Arctic Village, I ate caribou prepared a half dozen different ways. On one night, I arrived at James’s house to find a feast waiting for me on the kitchen table. She served fried caribou, rice, and salad made with the only vegetables consistently available at the small village store—a mixture of peas, corn and diced carrots from a can, dressed with mayo and spices. We finished off the meal with homemade fry bread, slightly sweet and studded with raisins. Then one of James’s friends introduced me to akutuq “ice cream”—freshly picked salmonberries with whipped Crisco and sugar.

Everything was delicious, but it also felt weighted with meaning. The people here live off caribou, first and foremost, but also moose and mountain sheep. They eat salmon, lake trout, whitefish, burbot and pike. They eat ducks and geese and muskrat and the small fatty Arctic ground squirrel. They supplement their wild foods with a few price-inflated essentials from the store: flour, rice, crackers, the odd can of mixed vegetables.

I had asked myself what really mattered in the fight over the calving grounds, and this, I realized, was it. In 1992, in the wake of the Exxon Valdez disaster, the Yukon government had published a pamphlet titled “What Is at Stake Is a Way of Life Thousands of Years Old.” That was intangible, though; it was hard for me to grasp. Here, on the table in front of me, was proof I could hold onto. Here was something I could taste.

© 2019, Eva Holland. From “Born to be Eaten,” by Eva Holland, from longreads.com (May 30, 2019).

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada