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UPDATED: Gwich’in-led lawsuit filed against drilling in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

The U.S. administration has 60 days to respond to the lawsuit.
Caribou graze on the greening tundra of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in northeast Alaska in June, 2001. The Gwich’in Steering Committee, of which the Vuntut Gwitchin is a member, along with several environmental groups are suing the Trump administration in an attempt to halt oil and gas leasing in ANWR. (Michael Penn/Juneau Empire File)

The Gwich’in Steering Committee along with several environmental groups are suing the Trump administration in an attempt to halt oil and gas leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

The lawsuit, which is being brought forward by 13 different groups including the Gwich’in Steering Committee, of which the Vuntut Gwitchin is a member, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society’s (CPAWS) Yukon chapter and 11 other U.S.-based environmental organizations, alleges the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has violated the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Wilderness Act, and the Endangered Species Act.

It comes after the U.S. government decided Aug. 17 to open up 1.56 million acres, or approximately 6,313 square kilometres, of the 78,000-square-kilometre refuge’s northern coastal plain for oil and gas development.

“The record of decision validates our experience of the erosion of integrity in assessments, process and respect. In light of our best efforts we are left no other option than that of filing legal action to hold those accountable as we the Gwich’in are held accountable by our future generations,” said Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation in a statement.

“We are in the sixth extinction age. We know about climate change. I’m not against development or economies, but how does this fit into a larger picture? And really, if we do not have the sense to be aware of what we are decimating, […] if we are willing to trade this for a short lived oil and gas industry, then that means we are willing to trade our future generations well-being for affluence today. I don’t think any American would stand for this, and nor will the Gwich’in.

“Our rights, future and the land and animals cannot be bought yet others try to sell it.”

Among other violations, the lawsuit claims that the decision does not do enough to protect the threatened polar bear species. The allegations have not been tested in court.

Tizya-Tramm said the Vuntut Gwitchin have appealed to the Prime Minister’s Office for a public statement of support.

Vicki Clark, executive director of Trustees for Alaska, the law firm representing the group, said on Aug. 24 that the lawsuit was being filed quickly to challenge the decision before sales get underway.

She said a preliminary injunction that could temporarily stall the sale is being considered by the legal team but has not yet been filed.

The area is an important breeding ground for polar bears and is the calving grounds for the Porcupine caribou herd, a key source of food and cultural identity for the Gwich’in.

The herd has a long annual migration and generally spends more time in Canada than in the United States, according to Chris Rider, executive director of CPAWS Yukon.

“This is an issue that doesn’t just affect the United States, it has resounding implications for Canada,” Rider said. “The caribou don’t recognize the U.S.-Canada border, no one is checking their passports when they cross back and forth, and more of their lives are often spent in Canada than the United States. Anything that is done in Alaska that impacts the health of the calving grounds has an impact on the health of the people and land here in Canada.”

The U.S. administration has 60 days to respond to the lawsuit.

The Bureau of Land management’s approval of oil and gas leasing this month was the first time in 60 years that ANWR has been opened to development. The process to begin development in the coastal plain was started in December 2017 when the U.S. Congress passed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, opening up ANWR’s coastal plain to the possibility of oil and gas leases.

In a news release, the interior department said they believe exploration and drilling can be done in a way that “strikes a balance” and preserves the environment while bringing economic benefit to Alaska.

“Our elders directed us to do this work in a good way, and that is a very simple sentence but it’s not always easy, especially when you’re up against an administration that is so dishonest,” said Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee.

“We will very much be negatively impacted, our animals will very much be negatively impacted. Our people will very much be negatively impacted, and our ways of life will be negatively impacted. Our identity as a people, as Indigenous people, is not up for sale.”

During a press conference on Aug. 24, Demientieff also referenced Gwich’in living on the Canadian side of the border, who she said “have been completely and utterly shut out” in talks with the government.

Contact Haley Ritchie at