The Porcupine caribou herd in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). (Peter Mather/petermather.com)

Gwich’in prepare for another battle to stop drilling in caribou calving grounds

‘A way of life is going to be destroyed if you do this’

Lorraine Netro’s eyes filled with tears. She folded and unfolded her hands nervously, broke them apart and tugged at the edge of her brightly-printed scarf.

“It’s just very hard to find the words to talk about,” she said. “I get very emotional.”

“We have a spiritual connection to the caribou. The caribou sustains our way of life, they sustain our spirit and our soul.”

Netro is a member of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation and an advocate for the Porcupine caribou. What has her — and many of her people, as well as environmentalists — deeply concerned is a recently re-opened proposal by the United States government to allow seismic testing for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The proposed exploration site — known as 1002 Area — is thought to be the largest onshore oil reserve in North America. It also includes the traditional calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd, a place and an animal intrinsically linked to the Gwich’in.

Alaska’s Radio Kenai reported that a bill to pass a budget resolution which would allow for drilling in the area passed the U.S. House of Representatives Oct. 5. The move comes as part of a broader push by Republicans to roll back Obama-era environmental protections.

“Now is the time, (for) the good of the nation, and because we are in debt,” Radio Kenai quoted Alaska’s congressman, Don Young, as saying. Young is a longtime proponent of drilling in the reserve.

Netro said the calving grounds in ANWR are sacred to the Gwich’in, who call the place “iizhik gwats’a’t gwandaii goodlit,” which translates roughly to “sacred place where life begins,” in their language.

“Any harm to this sacred place where the caribou give birth to their young will impact the Gwich’in way of life,” she said. “If anything should happen to the caribou, the Gwich’in people are going to suffer. It’s going to to directly impact our traditional and cultural way of life, the culture for all future generations within our nation.”

Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation Chief Bruce Charlie said the only real options available to them are to continue to try to educate people and to ask the federal government for support.

“Right now, my options are two, I guess,” he said. “Increase the number of visits we make to the Lower 48 and educate people about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.”

“We need to meet with the Prime Minister as quickly as possible…. We can’t wait around, we need to talk to him now … and ask our Indigenous representatives in Ottawa to champion us.”

Speaking via phone from Old Crow, Charlie was audibly upset about the threat to the calving grounds, which, like Netro, he said was of the utmost importance to his people.

“A way of life is going to be destroyed if you do this,” he said.

Yukon Environment Minister Pauline Frost said the Yukon government “supports protecting the calving grounds” and “wants to continue to work with First Nations to protect this area.”

Frost is also a member of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation and said “it’s really important” to her community to protect the caribou. For the last 40 years, the Vuntut Gwitchin and the government have worked to protect the calving ground, she said, keeping the threat of development “at bay.” Now, however, they are threatened with “the potential for reversal.”

“I don’t forget where I come from,” she said. “Every member of my community is very aware that we have to take drastic measures to protect the caribou herd.”

Since 1987, Canada and the U.S. have had obligations within ANWR under the International Porcupine Caribou Agreement. Maybe it’s time to bring that partnership “back to the table for further discussion,” said Frost.

Complicating the matter further is the issue of the Alaska-Yukon border and the Gwich’in people. The Gwich’in are, on paper at least, divided between Canada and the U.S.

“We don’t recognize that border,” Netro said. “They see that border as a way to try and separate (the Gwich’in). We speak on this in unity and we speak with one voice when it comes to protecting (ANWR), there is absolutely no question in that and we are together in unity.”

“Any kind of disturbance to these sacred grounds is absolutely not acceptable,” Netro said. “There just cannot be anyone in these areas.”

Mike Suitor, a biologist with Environment Yukon, agrees with Netro. The Porcupine caribou calving grounds are situated along the coastal plain of Yukon and Alaska and have “very specific vegetation and qualities the caribou love,” he said. Caribou are extremely sensitive to light and sound and any construction in their territory has the potential to upset their feeding, breeding and migratory habits, he said.

Suitor said caribou sometimes move into areas of lower food quality in order to escape distrubances. That can affect the survival rate of their calves.

“Sometimes, mining and drilling companies, they see caribou on their sites and they say ‘see, they’re still here,’” he said. “But are those animals feeding? Often, they’re not … if they don’t feed during key periods they never really recover from it.”

Porcupine caribou, he said, are a barrenlands caribou. Unlike woodlands caribou, which move higher up into the mountains to “become hard to find” during calving time, barrenlands caribou practice something called “synchronous calving” meaning females all have their calves at the same place around the same time. This is a survival strategy, he said, because it limits predator access.

“If you’re a bear, you can only eat so many calves,” Suitor said.

The calving ground can’t just be anywhere, he added.

“Caribou need to calve precisely where they need to calve,” he said. “The caribou know where that is and there are a lot of reasons (they) might choose that specific place.”

Netro said climate change has already brought challenges for the Porcupine caribou. In recent years they haven’t followed their traditional routes which pass near Gwich’in villages, she said.

“That left us with extreme food insecurity,” she said. “With the price of food (in the far North) it’s a stress. It impacts every area of our lives, our way of being, our health and wellness. It leaves a void when that happens, like a void, somehow, within ourselves.”

Netro said her people have managed for the last 40 years to fend off development in the calving grounds in large part due to help from grassroots anti-drilling movements in the U.S. But things seems to have shifted, she said.

“What we need from the government, on every level of government … is to acknowledge and protect our sacred places,” she said. “We live in unsettled times, we have to be mindful that any decision we make today is going to impact and affect (future generations). We need to have respect for … leaving them that legacy that my grandparents left for me.”

Netro said fighting to stop oil and gas development in ANWR would be a good way for the federal government to show it’s serious about reconciliation.

“Don’t pay us lip service,” she said.

Contact Lori Fox at lori.fox@yukon-news.com

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