A bull caribou grazes in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (Malkolm Boothroyd/malkolmboothroyd.com)

Northerners react to report questioning the science of ANWR development

A Yukon biologist provides more detail on the recently-released Canadian report

If thousands of Porcupine caribou come into view of new development in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), how they will react is a wildcard, said an Environment Yukon biologist.

Based on a recently-released report commissioned by Canadian governments, “There is no example in the world of groups of this size interacting with infrastructure that you would find in an oil and gas field,” said Mike Suitor, who was also one of the contract leads of the report.

These super groups, he noted, can include more than 100,000 animals when taken as an aggregate number.

The authors, Suitor said, are “saying it’s unknown how those caribou will respond at a period where it’s so critical that those calves grow and do well.”

The Canadian report found a lack of analysis in the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s draft environmental impact statement concerning potential impacts to the Porcupine caribou herd.

The American’s draft plan involves leasing out parcels of the coastal plain to oil and gas development.

Yukon’s Environment Minister Pauline Frost said work continues with partners to put together a formal response to the draft plan.

The closure of the public comment and hearing period has been extended to Mar. 13.

“At this point in time, I’m not prepared to speak about the technical submission because the parties are working collectively to gather their submission,” she said.

Whether mitigation measures will work is unclear, according to the Canadian report. Linked to that is an absence of a monitoring program that would track the caribou’s migratory patterns.

The draft plan includes “almost no information” when it comes to monitoring the herd’s movements, it says.

This means no feedback loop, Suitor said.

“There’s a mitigation that’s put in place — does it work, does it not? We won’t know because there’s no guidance on what is needed,” he said.

“If piecemeal projects go ahead, there’d be no collaborative effort that would occur among these different groups, no oversight, so it’s really hard to monitor and determine success or failure.”

And further, mitigation stipulations included in the draft plan — no surface occupancy or time restrictions, for instance — could be short-lived, Suitor said, because they could be waived.

He added that this is predicated on other developments elsewhere in the state.

Kris Statnyk, a Vancouver-based lawyer and citizen of Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, said the Canadian report reaffirms Indigenous people’s concerns – from a western scientific lens.

“We see what this unprecedented change could bring to us, to our culture, our communities,” he said.

The claims of sustainability included in the draft plan don’t hold water, Statnyk said.

“As we drill down into these details, we get to see through that rhetoric,” he said, referring to the problems with the draft plan highlighted in the Canadian report.

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.

(The coastal plain, wherein future development could take, place is also called 1002).

Statnyk said if this level of decline occurred, it would likely mean harvesting restrictions for Gwich’in people.

“I fear for that, what that would mean for our future as Gwich’in,” he said.

Vuntut Gwitchin Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

A significant portion of the herd’s survival depends on accessing ANWR’s coastal plain, the Canadian report says.

The coastal plain acts a natural fly swatter. It’s breezy, Suitor said, lessening insect harassment during peak months (late June to early July).

Secondly, the area has highly nutritious food sources compared to outside it, which is essential for calves, Suitor said.

These factors mean the herd is frequently on the move, he said, bounding sometimes 25 kilometres per day.

If development in the coastal plain goes ahead, Suitor said it’s predicted the herd would encounter it during the post-calving period, noting that the landscape in this area is very narrow.

“Regardless of where they calve, the caribou herd will almost always push over to 1002,” he said.

When this happens, they would likely avoid or reduce feeding, which would impact calf survival rates.

According to the Canadian report, not having access to the coastal plain of ANWR because of development would reduce calf survival rates by nine per cent.

“Getting to 1002 is important, because it has an earlier spring, it has more productive vegetation of the right types,” Suitor said. “The cows and calves are able to do much better when they’re there, and we see that directly translated in terms of survival.”

Calf survival is usually the first thing to drop off, he said, and a cow won’t sacrifice herself for her young.

“She’s not going to die to try to keep her calf alive,” Suitor said. “If she’s not getting the requirements she needs, that means she’ll start to wean the calf and that results in either a weaker calf that (is) prone to predation or a calf that just outright die(s).”

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

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, each to include at least 400,000 acres with the highest potential of hydrocarbons, must occur by 2024.

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

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