Brian Peech Peter Mather

The Porcupine caribou herd—one of the planet’s last great natural wonders—faces  an uncertain future. A look at the economic, biological and sustenance issues.

Freshly minted certificate in hand, a young teacher embarks on his career in Old Crow, a Gwich’in village of about 200 in the northern reaches of Canada’s Yukon territory. He’s recently caught the photo bug, and with camera at his side, trudges through the snow crust of a wind-scoured hill, hoping to capture something wonderful. As if on cue, a crescendo of grunts and scrapes and snapping foliage sends birds flittering from the thicket. What begins as a trickle of life is soon spilling from the trees in a full-fledged flood. Over ancient trails tamped into the landscape, the Porcupine caribou have returned, passing through Old Crow as part of the oldest and largest land migration on earth. A mounting chorus of snorts and clicking hooves fills the woods, and steam rises from sweaty hides and panting breath. As hundreds of caribou pass within arm’s reach of the teacher’s impromptu blind, he freezes, heart in his throat, body pressed tightly to a tree. Draining a day’s supply of energy just to keep still, he’s too awed to even lift the camera to his widening eyes. This is Peter Mather’s first up-close encounter with the caribou—a rendezvous that will sow the seeds of a career and set in motion a rhapsodic devotion to both conservation of the North’s wild spaces, and the preservation of its cultures.

. . .

Nearly 400 kilometres from Old Crow, notched into the northeast corner of Alaska, lies the 19.6-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), a seemingly insignificant swatch of land in a vast and varied wilderness. Stretching from boreal hinterland to the south, over the craggy Brooks Range, and spilling down the North Slope wetlands into the Beaufort Sea, the area is remote and, so far, all but void of human encroachment.


As the summer breeding grounds for the 200,000-plus Porcupine caribou herd, ANWR is also ground zero for one of the most contentious, polarizing battles between man and nature in North America—a simmering divide that recently reached a boiling point, and which Mather has found himself in the middle of. In December 2017, the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives passed a $1.5 trillion tax reform bill. In a move many describe as duplicitous, lawmakers attached legislation requiring the Department of Interior hold two lease sales of a minimum 400,000 acres each in the 1.5-million-acre coastal plain area of ANWR—referred to as the 10-02—over the next seven years.


“There are many indications this is being done on very shaky grounds,” says Old Crow resident and Vuntut Gwitch’in councilor, Dana Tizya-Tramm. “It was hidden in a tax bill, forcing the Senate Committee of Energy, Mines and Resources to find a way to produce a billion dollars from the state of Alaska.”


Disputes over development in the coastal plain are nothing new. Established in 1960, ANWR was doubled in size in 1980 along with a law granting permanent wilderness protection to much of the area. This was only three years after the Trans-Alaska Pipeline began carrying North Slope oil south from Prudhoe Bay to the port of Valdez, dramatically pumping up Alaska’s economy. With speculation that the 10-02 held similar reserves, it wasn’t included in the 1980 protections; the fight over drilling in the area has been ongoing since.


Under the new bill, Alaska and the feds would split revenue that could amount to some $1.1 billion for each over the first decade. With 80 per cent of its annual budget funded by oil and gas and a mounting deficit since oil prices plunged in 2015, Alaska could surely use the cash. Beyond lease sales, however, Alaska Senator Diane Murkowski and the Trump administration estimate $100 billion in royalties could be drawn from the refuge in coming decades—that is, if prices top $78/barrel and there’s a minimum seven billion barrels, a figure many experts feel is unlikely.


While there’s no definitive way of knowing without breaking ground, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimates that the 10-02 holds 4.3 – 11.8 billion barrels. At the upper end—which even the USGS pegs at only a 5 per cent probability—it would put ANWR in the same league as neighbouring Prudhoe Bay, one of the continent’s largest oil fields with production of 281,000 barrels per day. “It’s probably the number-one opportunity in the long term to ensure Alaska continues to thrive economically,” says Andrew Mack, Alaska Department of Natural Resources Commissioner. “We have an obligation to monetize the resource, but our additional responsibility and obligation is to make sure we do it with great care… keeping in mind the people that live there, their lifestyles, and reliance upon the lands and the waters.”


While it might be the best opportunity for Alaska, it’s far from a good opportunity federally. The $1.1 billion in federal revenue forecasted from lease sales is less than one-tenth of one per cent of the $1.5 trillion tax cut. To raise even that much requires bringing in an ambitious $2,750 per acre when North Slope lease sales are averaging far less. Aside from the hazy financials, this most recent push to develop the 10-02 flies in the face of a longstanding treaty between Canada and the U.S. to protect the Porcupine herd and its habitat.


Caribou from the Porcupine Herd in Canada
Members of the Porcupine caribou herd, with 7-week-old calves, spread across the Yukon’s Blow River during their annual migration from calving grounds to summer range.

“The spirit of the Agreement is clear about consultation [with First Nations] before anything happens that could disturb the caribou. Yet [U.S. officials] have already posted their notice of intent and Vuntut Gwich’in has not heard from them,” says Tizya-Tramm, who recently met with signatories from the Porcupine Caribou Management Board (PCMB), comprising the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, Na-Cho Nyak Dun and Vuntut Gwich’in First Nations, as well as the Inuvialuit Gaming Council, the federal government, and the Yukon and Northwest territorial governments.  The Gwich’in have relied on the caribou for millennia, their relationship summed in a reference to the calving grounds as ‘the sacred place where life begins.’ Drilling in ANWR would throw the lives of Gwich’in communities throughout the Northwest Territories, Yukon, and Alaska into discord, amounting to an existential threat to survival.


“Culturally, the Gwich’in are caribou people,” says Mather. “They have all these important tales—like a belief that part of the caribou heart lies within each Gwich’in, and part of the Gwich’in heart is in each caribou, too.”


The fact that Gwich’in communities trace the millennia-old migratory route further reinforces this symbiotic relationship. For their parts, the governments of Canada, Yukon and the Vuntut Gwitch’in have issued statements opposing drilling in ANWR, working through the PCMB to formulate a plan to fight further development.


“Now, one of the objectives of the ‘wildlife preserve’ is to produce oil and gas,” says Tizya-Tramm. “This is a dangerous precedent, and it comes at a very critical point. Once the leases are sold, it will shut down a lot of the ability for other entities to weigh in on the future of the coastal plains.”


Mather sees it in even starker terms. “For 40 years, the Gwich’in and environmental groups have fought to keep those calving grounds safe from oil and gas development. That’s 40 years of fighting essentially lost.”

. . .

Twenty years later, this time on skis, Mather climbs another hill towing a sled loaded with 160 kilos of provisions and camera gear. Now a member of the League of Conservation Photographers and a stringer for National Geographic, he’s been forced to slog an unanticipated 120 kilometres into Ivvavik National Park to intercept the caribou migration after his bush pilot couldn’t put down on collapsing snowdrifts or melting lakes.  Now in his forties, Mather is recognized as one of the world’s foremost wilderness photographers. His time photographing bears, wolverines and other camera-shy Arctic animals, as well as his work with the Gwich’in, has put him on the map as both an experienced outdoorsman and gifted visual storyteller. Realizing that the paltry five kilometres a day he’s gaining across thawing snow won’t put him near the caribou in time, Mather shifts tactics. Choosing now to travel in the ever-dusk blue of the Arctic night, cooler temperatures allow for a more efficient crossing, and soon he’s on track for another rendezvous.  His journey is full of doubt. Has he missed the herd? Will it be where he’s expecting it? Will his images reflect the sheer awe of the migration at a time when awareness matters most? Did he likely just spend all this time, energy and possibly the last of his money to come up empty-handed?  Despite the risks, Mather presses on. He’s all in now. Mother Nature is notoriously fickle, they say, and, it turns out, so are caribou.


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“Caribou are the keystone
 of the North,” says North Yukon Regional BiologistMike Suitor. “They influence both terrestrial and aquatic landscapes and feed everything. In the Far North, whenever there’re no caribou, it’s lonely country. But when they arrive, [suddenly so do] wolves and bears and wolverines. The caribou drive the ecosystem.” This wellspring of activity extends from the wilderness into most northern communities, explains Tizya-Tramm. “Caribou move in pulses,” he says, “and as soon as they come close, the entire town comes alive.”


For Mather the experience is more quixotic. “When you’re out there the world will be so quiet,” he says. “But then the caribou come, and there’s all this noise, all this life, and it just seems to awaken everything. I’ll have a feeling that everything on the land is just waiting for caribou. Like a drought on the prairies—you’re just waiting for rain to pour down and bring it back to life.”


Today, the Porcupine caribou herd is at the apex of a natural cycle of fluctuation. Last year it reached record numbers, with government surveys estimating the population at 202,000 – 235,000, significantly higher than the previous peak of 178,000 in 1989. And while some barren grounds caribou herds have declined over 90 per cent from historic averages, the robust Porcupine herd isn’t considered threatened. The herd has grown steadily at an average annual rate of 3.7 per cent, low compared to other herds, which tend to cycle up and down much more rapidly; the herd’s crashes likewise aren’t as dramatic. And therein lies a conundrum: with no immediate concern over numbers, and no way to know for sure how development might impact the population, why sound the alarm? At its most basic, the question becomes Why can’t the caribou just calve elsewhere?


“Caribou are very sensitive when calving,” says Mather, “When you’re near the calving grounds, you can’t even leave your tent because you might spook them. Even the Gwich’in don’t go in there at that time of year because it’s such an intrusion. The idea that you’d have helicopters and trucks and pipelines and people everywhere… well, there’s no way it wouldn’t be devastating. It’s just not compatible.”


Butchering Caribou in the Northwest Territories, Canada
Tetlit Gwich’in elder Ernest Vittrekwa butchers a caribou with his granddaughter on the banks of the Peel River in the NWT.


Biologists agree, having long understood the legion of factors that make the 10-02 an ideal place for calving. “In 50 years of monitoring, other than a spring where there were major snowstorms, the herd hasn’t calved anywhere other than the North Slope. It’s quite specific habitat,” says Suitor, noting that wolves tend to stay above timberline, and that while predators like grizzly bears and golden eagles may venture onto the plain, their numbers are significantly lower than in areas farther south. “There’s not really anywhere else like it.”


In a perfect mix of protection and sustenance rarely afforded by the Arctic, cows arrive just as cotton grass is blooming and calf shortly thereafter; timing is crucial because the cow’s access to good food affects milk production.  “The spring migration is pretty hard [on the caribou],” says Mather. “The terrain is soft and they have to cross rivers during flood that are filled with huge chunks of ice. It’s pretty dangerous and indicates how important it is for them to get to the calving grounds.”


Suitor notes that if cows are disturbed because of activities in the area, they’re likely to pay more attention to what’s going on around them than eating. And if calves grow slowly as a result, those young will be more susceptible to predators for longer periods of time. “The vast majority of fatalities occur during those first few weeks of life,” he explains. So, while Porcupine caribou numbers are momentarily strong, development would almost certainly impact and imperil the population.


In the early 1990s, state biologists with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game found calf survival was high on the coastal plain, but very low when, for whatever reason, caribou were displaced south or east. Another study by biologist Brad Griffith of the Alaska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit found that drilling anywhere in the calving grounds was likely to reduce calf survival rates by a minimum 8.2 per cent, while the herd can only sustain a 4.6 per cent reduction in survivability before it begins to negatively impact the population.


A bull caribou leading a group of caribou in Canada
A bull caribou leads a small group through whiteout conditions in the Richardson Mountains of Northern Yukon

“The decline in calf survival would be sufficient enough to actually stop the herd from increasing at its natural rate, and that’s significant,” says Suitor. “Oil developments aren’t short term, they’re here for decades. So, if a herd is already in a natural decline phase, adding this effect on top could accelerate it, and, on the other end, make it slower to come back up again.”


Proponents of drilling often point to the neighbouring Central Arctic herd as an example of caribou thriving in proximity to oil development. That herd has remained healthy despite displacement by the hive of activity at Prudhoe Bay. But the width of the ANWR coastal plain is much narrower than it is there—15 – 60 kilometres versus 150-plus kilometres. If the Porcupine herd were displaced to areas with higher predation and/or diminished sustenance, long-term viability could be compromised by the Arctic’s stormy disposition for hostile conditions. Biologically it seems a monumental gamble, but given what’s at stake for its economy, Alaska has a different take.


“We have the ability to manage impacts, and we’ve successfully been able to do so,” argues commissioner Mack. “And we continue to refine how we do business in the sense of stipulations that go along with building oil infrastructure in an Arctic setting. We think we can harvest subsurface resources and protect the surface values, and that they’re not incompatible. We also have an obligation to sustainability; we have to take up the mantle and responsibility to be good stewards. If we fall down at any stage… that would be an extremely challenging situation.”


If the State does fall down, any damage will linger a long time. A study by the National Academies of Science in 2003 concluded that massive costs make the removal of any oil or gas infrastructure from the North Slope unlikely. In the real case of an unsuccessful well drilled some 30 years ago where equipment was removed, satellite images show the tundra has yet to recover.


“You can say the herd is 200,000 strong, that there’s new drilling technology, and that there will be less impacts,” says Tizya-Tramm. “But we all know about the accidents that take place—and some of the species we’ve already lost.”


The continent lost its million-strong plains bison herd at the turn of the century, and Tizya-Tramm wonders if that’s something we’re willing to repeat with caribou. “At the end of the day is it truly responsible to risk these fragile ecosystems for an already very well-established oil system?” 


. . .

He hasn’t picked up his camera in some time. In stark contrast to the wide-open spaces Mather typically calls his office, he’s in Washington lobbying for protection of ANWR. The late nights spent campaigning have left him longing for time with his family and itching to get back into the northern wilderness. Mather has taken on the responsibility of creating awareness around the 10-02. He began by planning to run five trips into the area for interested and engaged people, but as more and more became conscious of the issue, that number quickly doubled. In summer 2018 he will lean on his Arctic experience to escort 40 to 50 storytellers—writers, photographers and filmmakers—to the refuge in hopes they’ll help tell the story of the caribou, the plight of the Gwich’in, and all those working to protect the refuge. Seeing protections instituted for the 10-02 is another monumental hill to climb, one of the most important crests Mather has ever ascended.


 So, what now? At the end of July 2018, the U.S. Department of Land Management posted an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that opened up a 45-day comment period.


“The commitment of industry, and frankly of the state, is to tread lightly,” says Mack. Included in that EIS are stipulations designed not only to protect caribou, but other land animals, waterfowl, water resources.”


Whether protections for calving grounds are embedded into the ANWR development plan remains to be seen. In any case, oil from ANWR is unlikely to hit the market for at least a decade. “That’s time to bring a fulcrum of reason into this issue and push it in the right direction,” says Tizya-Tramm.


In the meantime, Mather sees that window as time to ramp up the fight on the ground. “We need thousands of people doing their own little piece to protect this area,” he says, advocating education and appealing to elected officials. “Here in Canada, the government is very supportive of protecting the refuge. We’d like them to take a stronger stand against the United States and be more forceful [about] what should happen up there.”


For Tizya-Tramm, the struggle transcends borders, cultures and partisan politics.  “If [I strip] away the emotion, and… my First Nations point of view, I feel that whatever we see unfold here will be a litmus test for the Arctic,” he says. “Our elders say the land speaks for itself, but as a leader for my people, I have to speak to those who cannot hear what the land says. We’re all people at the end of the day, and this message isn’t one of a First Nation, or of an environmentalist—it’s a human one.” — ML



When Peter Mather moved to Canada’s Yukon Territory at eight years old it was love at first sight. He started tinkering with cameras after seeing a presentation on the embattled Peel watershed. His photo work now circles the globe, inspired by both the beauty of wilderness areas and the need to protect them. //


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