Porcupine caribou during the annual migration through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). According to a critical scientific report released this week, possible measures intended to offset impacts to the Porcupine caribou herd during the potential development of the ANWR are incomplete. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Wikimedia Commons)

ANWR plan offers ‘little evidence’ Porcupine caribou won’t be impacted: Canadian report

‘The effectiveness of mitigation remains largely unmeasured’

Potential plans to offset development impacts in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) on the Porcupine caribou herd are incomplete, according to a critical scientific report released this week commissioned by the Yukon, NWT and federal governments.

The report quantifies potential effects to the herd if development goes ahead. It says there are holes in the analysis conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

“BLM’s … proposed mitigation, monitoring and adaptive management does not have enough information to be confident that there is no short or long term risk to the Porcupine caribou herd, harvest availability or its habitat,” the Canadian report says.

“The stipulations and required operating conditions are inconsistent in their level of detail and lack contingencies which causes uncertainties in how risk will be mitigated.”

The report, conducted by Shadow Lake Environmental Inc., is in response to the BLM’s draft Environmental Impact Statement released in late December concerning potential lease sales of parcels within ANWR’s coastal plain.

The draft plan says that both caribou herds would “be managed to ensure unhindered movement of caribou through the area.”

While the authors of the Canadian report agree with this statement, they say that the draft plan “offers little evidence that this goal is yet achievable.”

The report suggests that BLM establish effective monitoring and mitigation methods after a “retroactive review” of the central Arctic caribou herd — also present in the coastal plain — and other monitoring programs.

The Canadian study was completed using a computer-generated program, gauging things like the caribou’s movements, climate sensitivities and disturbance caused by human activity.

BLM’s draft environmental statement, conversely, did not analyze caribou movements, the report says.

The U.S. draft plan proposes several options that divvy up the coastal plain, also referred to as area 1002, to varying degrees. Included are stipulations that could afford the herd some semblance of protection.

Two options involve providing leases to about 1.5 million acres, or the entire coastal plain; two sub-alternatives propose offering development access to roughly 1 million acres.

The Canadian report says flat out there’s an “estimated risk” to the herd.

If leases are to be awarded, under an average climate, development in the coastal plain poses a “19 per cent higher risk of a herd decline with 1002 development after 10 years” if taken at its current population.

Scientists also measured the impacts to the herd if there is to be full-fledged development, contrasting those findings to leaving the coastal plain alone.

“With a high starting herd size of 218,000 we found there was a small probability from 4 to 12 per cent … that the PCH numbers after 10 years would fall below the 115,000 threshold and enter the yellow warning harvest zone, compared to a 3 per cent probability under current no-development conditions,” it says.

According to the report, not having access to the coastal plain of ANWR — which acts as a shield against harsh winters — because of development would reduce calf survival rates by nine per cent. Mothers and their calves spend longer in the coastal plain compared to outside it – an average of four weeks versus 10 days, respectively.

The report takes aim at a lack of evidence to support mitigation effectiveness and “almost no information on monitoring and adaptive management,” all this despite opportunities to measure potential impacts by looking to other oilfields in the area.

“We simply do not know whether, for example, continuing drilling while (temporarily) shutting down construction is effective mitigation,” it says.

It also calls comparisons drawn between the Porcupine herd and the central arctic herd (CAH) “misleading.”

That herd has had to recalibrate its behaviour due to development in the Prudhoe Bay oil patch for about 50 years.

Apart from low harvesting rates, “Geography and herd management played a role in why the CAH did not decline during oilfield construction and operation,” it says. “Only part of the herd’s calving and post-calving was exposed to Prudhoe Bay (cows that calved east of Prudhoe Bay were not exposed) and the width of the coastal plain was extensive enough to accommodate displaced calving from west of Prudhoe Bay.”

The report also says there aren’t contingency plans for snap shifts in the caribou’s migratory patterns.

“It is uncertain what the contingency mitigation is if caribou move for calving or post-calving into areas with less protection,” it says.

Mike Suitor, a northern Yukon biologist with Environment Yukon, was not immediately available to speak to its findings because he was in Alaska this week.

Yukon Environment Minister Pauline Frost was also unavailable by press time.

In 1987, Canada signed an international pact with the U.S. government to conserve the Porcupine caribou.

The Canadian report is to inform a departmental response to the BLM ahead of closure of the public comment hearing period, which has been extended by roughly one month to Mar. 13.

A BLM press release says the extension was granted as a result of communities requesting more time.

U.S. officials have already said that halting lease sales in ANWR is not an option.

“Realistically, Congress has told us to have this sale,” Joe Balash, assistant secretary for land and minerals at the U.S. Department of the Interior, said in December. “Practically speaking, we will be moving forward here and implementing the law.”

In December 2017, ANWR’s coastal plain was opened up to the possibility of oil and gas leases when the Trump administration inserted a provision in to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. The legislation stipulates that one lease must be issued in four years and that no fewer than two lease sales occur.

Contact Julien Gignac at julien.gignac@yukon-news.com

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