greedy politicians prepare disaster for the caribou

The Oil Age is barely 100 years old and the devastation it has wreaked is beyond the imagination of most of us.

The Oil Age is barely 100 years old and the devastation it has wreaked is beyond the imagination of most of us.

Perhaps that’s why our rampage keeps accelerating.

Still, many individuals are attempting to protect the endangered species of the world. Others are recording the doomed before they’re gone.

How many of the planet’s large predators will pass the point of no return within decades?

Lions, tigers, polar bears … all the great ones? We don’t even count the losses of the smaller, less photogenic creatures.

In Africa today, not only are 11 million people experiencing the severe droughts caused by global warming, but the biggest animal migrations in the world (the miraculous 1.5 million wildebeests, the 200,000 zebras, the 30,000 Thompson gazelles) are endangered.

More than 70 per cent of domestic livestock have died in Kenya. Their owners are not far behind.

In North America, the largest surviving herd of migratory mammals, the Porcupine caribou could soon be fed into the maw of oil wells at the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

This will create the equivalent of a day’s worth of gasoline for American drivers.

Two environmentalists, Karsten Heuer and Leanne Allison, have documented the magnificent caribou migration in Heuer’s recent book, Being Caribou, published by The Mountaineers Books, and the film documentary of the same name by Allison.

The couple was the first people in recorded history to follow the migration on foot and skis.

It’s a journey made more dazzling by Heuer’s extensive knowledge of the herd’s habits, lucky guesswork, and the scant clues of a few well-placed caribou radio collars.

Heuer will be reading from his book in Whitehorse during the writers’ festival beginning on April 19th, along with a host of other noted writers, including Graeme Gibson, the well-regarded bird expert whose best-selling The Bedside Book of Birds has been wowing readers on both sides of the Atlantic.

Being Caribou is an important book. Heuer’s and Allison’s journey is a real adventure, although sometimes he loses the sweep of their epic accomplishment.

He defuses the drama of their unarmed wanderings in the midst of numerous grizzly bears (illustrated better in Allison’s video version), and then confuses his environmental argument by regarding them more as uninvited gangsters rather than a part of the ecosystem.

He also converts the killing and cleaning of several caribou by a native hunter into melodrama.

Heuer lacks the skill of a master environmental storyteller, like Wade Davis, whose riveting books are hard to put down even when describing the arcane botanical history of rubber plants and ethnobotany.

However, thrilling moments still shine in Being Caribou, such as a dangerous crossing of the Firth. And his account of their arrival at an Inupiat village is delightfully honest.

Heuer is best at capturing the spirit of the caribou through observations and ruminations; for instance, noting that while he and his companion must retreat to their tent in the face of a potentially deadly blizzard, “it’s just another day” for the caribou — although he never convinces us of his ability to ‘be caribou.’

Crucially, he illustrates how unpredictable the migration is, how wind and rain and insects and predator outbreaks can swiftly change the pattern of this 4,500-kilometre journey on 27,000-year-old trails.

His portrayal of the caribou during their notoriously skittish calving period is gripping.

Heuer allows his biological knowledge to filter through the daily agonies and petty personal gripes that people can discover on a journey nearly as impressive as the mad trapper of Rat River’s epic flight

Being Caribou will be best remembered for its documentation of daily incidents, the way the herds turn in the wind, how they evaporate and suddenly appear — the image of the vast calving on the ancient tundra — and the author’s talented knack for lacing his text with odd little gems of information, such as the fact that caribou milk has the highest fat content of any land mammal.

The endangered calving grounds are the only real possible environment for the calving.

The tundra that comes alive at the precise moment of their arrival supplies the best food, especially the nutrient-rich cotton grass.

The marshy plain provides ideal protection of the calves from predators because it is “too wet and flat for wolves to dig dens and relatively unattractive to grizzly bears.”

The timely winds protect the herd from biting insects.

He also ominously notes that in the years the herd hasn’t reached ANWR at the right time, calf mortality “skyrocketed” (as high as 40 per cent in 2001).

Previous oil drilling has not harmed calving because the herds have always moved away. But ANWR is the last, big calving ground, and its loss could be catastrophic.

There’s no doubt that once the string of roads and oil lines appear this herd will be diminished, if not endangered.

Yet the preliminary American Senate bill to approve drilling in this fragile breeding ground for the caribou passed one week after the biggest oil spill in Alaska’s North Slope history.

More than a million litres of oil poured onto that delicate ecosystem, unequivocally demonstrating the merits of the new “gentle drilling” strategy.

You only have to glance at this week’s newspapers to read all the signs. Scientific predictions that continuing prairie droughts will make the dustbowl of the Dirty Thirties look wet.

And 20 to 30 per cent of the Caribbean coral reefs perished in the last four months under an algae bloom.

The air over Antarctica is warming at three times the speed of the rest of the world.

If we don’t change our ways quickly, the planet is going to make our doomsayers sound like optimists.

Yet the recent American administration is behaving like looters when a city or nation collapses. There’s almost a glee in their greed and disdain.

Imagine naming a bill that would increase pollution: The Clear Skies Act.

Just consider the recent remarks of Alaskan Senator Ted Stevens about the campaign to drill the wildlife refuge: “It’s not over until we win.”

Win what?

Being Caribou, by Karsten Heuer, The Mountaineers Club, 36.99 cloth, 237 pages