By Matt Jacques • Wednesday, November 22, 2017 – 12:48
In the remote north-eastern corner of Alaska, just under 20-million acres have been set aside as a federal protected area since 1960. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has recently come under threat, however, with President Donald Trump’s Department of the Interior proposing lifting restrictions on seismic exploration.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain has been described as America’s Serengeti, and is the year-round or migratory home to numerous species that are uniquely adapted to the conditions found within this rare expanse of undeveloped wilderness along the Arctic Ocean.
Over tens of thousands of years, both the Porcupine Caribou herd and the Gwich’in people have come to depend on the integrity of that coastal plain for their survival.
“The Gwich’in call this area ‘Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit,’ the Sacred Place Where Life Begins,” explained Vuntut Gwich’in Councillor Dana Tizya-Tramm via email.
“It is a keystone in the ecosystems of the Arctic, and the heart that beats outside of the Gwich’in chest.”
Oil and gas lobbyists have had the Refuge in their sights from the outset. For decades now, for every push to open up the wildlife refuge to oil and gas development, multiple generations of Gwich’in have stood up to protect the land and the herd that has sustained their way of life.
Disturbance to the landscape can upset a delicate balance between the wildlife that makes its home on the coastal plain.
Brooks Range mountains tower behind lush arctic tundra in Yukon’s north slope region. Photo: Matt Jacques | DeSmog Canada
“In a miracle of phenology [the interaction of climate, habitat and plant/animal cycles], Porcupine caribou cows arrive at the coastal plain just as the first flush of spring growth provides a burst of nutrients to them, just as they all deliver their calves at once,” said Yukon Conservation Society energy analyst Sebastian Jones in an emailed response to questions from DeSmog Canada.
“In the first few critical days of a caribou calf’s life, predation is the main hazard. Until they have found their legs, they are easy prey to wolves and bears.”
To the west of the Arctic Refuge, high levels of industrial activity are already taking place, and to the south and east of the narrow coastal plain area where the caribou calving takes place, steep mountain ranges mean less nutrients and more predators.
“There is simply nowhere else suitable for the caribou to go,” said Jones.