Caribou in an Energy Hungry World


Text by Liz McKenzie and Photos by Richard Nelson

Bull caribou in prime condition for the fall mating season.

Bull caribou in prime condition for the fall mating season.

Caribou are at the center of an ongoing debate concerning petrochemical development in two areas in Arctic Alaska—the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. Should oil, gas, and coal extraction be allowed in these areas or should protection of the wildlife and environment be the priority?

Both areas are important habitat for many species, but it is the question over the protection of critical caribou habitat that has sparked the most vocal debates.

Lands targeted for petrochemical development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska underlie calving grounds, summer range, and insect relief areas for three caribou herds.

The coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has been called the "biological heart of the refuge". A region known as "the 1002 Area" is the calving ground critical to the Porcupine Caribou Herd. The Gwich'in people, who live just south of the Brooks Range, depend on the Porcupine herd as their most important source of food. In their own language, they call this area "The Sacred Place Where Life Begins."

Although the calving grounds are within a "Refuge", they are not currently protected from oil and gas drilling and development.

The calving grounds for the Western Arctic Caribou herd—America's largest caribou herd—lie within the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. Lying directly beneath this birthing area is one of the world's largest deposits of bituminous coal. Caribou have been coming to these calving grounds for many thousands of years. And for very good reasons. If wildlife managers had set out to design a place for caribou to give birth, they couldn't have made a more perfect spot.

Both newborn calves and cows are extremely vulnerable and sensitive during calving time—even a slight disturbance can panic the animals, separating mothers from their newborns, causing fatal separations and exposing the calves to predators. The Petroleum Reserve calving grounds have relatively high numbers of predators, but luckily the opposite is true on the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge. This gives an advantage to the Porcupine Caribou Herd, because the cows can give birth and their calves can gain strength and agility before moving into the summer range where they are more likely to be stalked by wolves, bears, and golden eagles.

The greening up of tundra vegetation happens just when the pregnant cows arrive. This provides the mothers with an outburst of nutritious new plant growth, so they have the necessary energy for giving birth and nursing their new calves.

Summer on the arctic tundra.   

Summer on the arctic tundra.   

Caribou cows shed their antlers here soon after the birth of their calves. The antlers are rich in calcium, which the cows have ingested from plants outside the calving grounds. The antlers make the perfect transport system for this vital nutrient because after they are shed they gradually decay into the soil. Also, small rodents gnaw on them and the calcium is passed from their droppings into the soil, where the plants take it up. When nursing cows eat the plants, calcium enters their bodies again and is passed on to their calves.

This calcium "enrichment program" has been going on for tens of thousands of years right on the calving grounds where they are needed most.

Northern coastal areas remain cool longer than other parts of the caribou's range—another factor in the choice of calving grounds. Cooler temperatures are important because they postpone the emergence of biting insects. This opens a short window of insect-free time giving both mothers and their calves a chance to gain strength. Later, insects become so numerous that caribou are constantly on the move, losing weight due to blood loss and not being able to stop and feed for long periods.

First autumn snow in arctic Alaska's caribou country. 

First autumn snow in arctic Alaska's caribou country. 

Successful birth and rearing of offspring is the most important part of any animal's life cycle, and so many wildlife biologists have concluded that disturbance or loss of calving areas would be detrimental to the future of arctic caribou.

There is also growing concern among scientists that temperatures are warming more rapidly in the high latitudes than anywhere else on earth. Changes are being documented in the distribution of plant communities and animal species, and there's a growing concern about how this will affect caribou. 

And there is overwhelming agreement among scientists that human activities—specifically carbon emissions from our ever-increasing use of petrochemical products—is a major cause of the unprecedented rate of change in global climate.

Caribou are a great national treasure, much like the enormous herds of wildebeests that migrate across the African plains. After the disappearance of the North American bison, caribou became the last of the great herds to migrate over the flatlands and mountains, and along the rivers and valleys of this continent. Also caribou are to the native people of arctic what the buffalo were to the Indian tribes of the plains.

This is another part of debates over development versus protection of arctic wildlands. Indigenous people have depended on caribou for more than 10,000 years, and the migrating herds are still central to their subsistence economies and cultural lives.

The Gwich'in people who live in Canada and Alaska depend on the Porcupine Caribou herd—3,000 people in 15 villages. Also in the north country of Alaska, Eskimo and Athabascan people living in 40 villages depend on the Western Arctic Caribou herd.

Caribou is the staple food in many of these communities, but as Gwich'in elder Sarah James of Arctic Village explains, people's dependence on caribou goes beyond meat: "It's our food on our table, it's our story, it's our song, it's our dance." Caribou define the subsistence and cultural life for the Gwich'in.

For decades, there has been an ongoing debate over oil, industrial development, and other human activities that impact caribou habitat. Which do we value most: oil, jobs, and industry, or wildlife and wild lands? Of course, most people wish we could have it both ways, but the lessons of history, written across the face of North America, show that this is difficult, if not impossible.

Among native people, biologists, conservationists, and many others, there is a great concern about the effects of petrochemical development on the health and long-term survival of caribou herds. Organizations such as the Caribou Working Group and the Gwich'in Steering Committee have been outspoken in their desire to have the herds and the environment that sustains them protected.

The Gwich'in Steering Committee Report concluded: "drilling in the Arctic refuge would violate the human rights of the Gwich'in people because of the impacts drilling would have on Gwich'in subsistence, culture, and way of life" and they have appealed to the United States and the international community to protect their way of life.

Works Cited:

Gwich'in Steering Committee. n.d. Web. 14 Sept. 2011.

James, Sarah Agnes. "Sarah Agnes James: Copenhagen, Dec. 8, 2009." YouTube. 10
     Feb. 2010. Web. 14 Sept. 2011.
James, Sarah Agnes. "COP 15 Gwich'en Elder Sarah James." YouTube. 10 Dec. 2009. 
     Web. 14 Sept. 2011

Mark Bethka