A Delicate Balance…

Without a doubt, it is the remote nature of the Porcupine Caribou Herd’s range that has saved them from the development that has led to declining wildlife populations elsewhere in the world. 7,500 people live scattered in 15 communities in the herd’s 250,000 range. Only one road, the Dempster Highway in Canada’s Yukon and Northwest Territories, penetrates the region. Such an absence of development has permitted the caribou to thrive, and aboriginal cultures that have co-evolved with them, to survive as well. Modern-day aboriginal people still rely completely on the meat and hides of caribou for food and clothing each year (see Caribou People). In the most fundamental physiological way, not other food will do.

… Under Threat

The thousands-year-old balance between the Porcupine Caribou and the aboriginal people of the northern Yukon and Alaska is under threat. Despite 95% of the Alaskan Arctic coast being open for oil and gas development, the heart of the Porcupine Caribou Herd’s calving grounds is now being targeted by companies like Chevron, British Petroleum, Arco, and Exxon for more exploration. An average of 400 spills involving tens of thousands of gallons of crude oil already contaminate other parts of the North Slope each year, and over 43,000 tons of oxides of nitrogen (i.e. smog) already cloud the skies over the 1,500-mile network of roads and pipelines that blanket other parts of the tundra. And yet the pressure to open the Arctic Refuge and the heart of the caribou’s calving grounds continues to grow with each passing year.

What would such development look like? Recent U.S. Geological Survey studies conclude that potential oil resources within the Refuge are located in small pockets rather than one giant oilfield like Prudhoe Bay — necessitating a web of roads, drill pads, processing facilities and airstrips across hundreds of square miles.

Oil and Caribou Don’t Mix

Oil development has occurred in the habitat of other caribou herds, and almost always has had negative effects. As oilfield roads in the Kuparuk oilfield of Prudhoe Bay grew closer, for example, concentrated caribou calving disappeared. And for those that did stick around the oilfields, they had lower calf productivity than caribou in the same herd that seldom encountered oil related facilities.

Such impacts would undoubtedly be more severe for members of the Porcupine Caribou Herd, should oil and gas development impinge on their calving range. One reason is that, unlike the Central Arctic Herd at Prudhoe Bay, the Porcupine Herd is reliant on a greater proportion of their annual protein requirement from the grasses and sedges that grow on their calving range. The second reason is that the coastal plain of the Porcupine Herd’s calving grounds is much narrower than around Prudhoe Bay, and any displacement would almost certainly result in higher risk of predation on calves in the grizzly and wolf-rich foothills (see Calving Grounds backgrounder for more details).

As the Alaskan and Canadian biologists who have studied the herd said in a strongly worded letter to the US government: “State-of-the-art technology has not prevented displacement of calving from even the newer oilfields on Alaska’s North Slope, and no proven technology exists that would ensure unrestricted passage through an oilfield of the large mid-summer aggregations of Porcupine Caribou.”