The Porcupine caribou herd migrates across 250,000 square kilometres of wild lands. Much of that habitat is coincidentally rich with oil and gas resources.
Rising fuel prices and increasing concerns about scarcity bring the promise and threat of increased development in the Canadian portion of the herd’s range.
Although the Porcupine Caribou Management Board would prefer to keep all the herd’s habitat pristine, it does not oppose responsible development.
To ensure the habitat is well protected, the board makes recommendations about proposed activities in the herd’s range. The board relies on the Porcupine Caribou Technical Committee, a team of experts, to provide advice about the herd’s use of its habitat and the influence of human activities in its range.
Decades of widespread opposition has stalled development in the herd’s primary calving grounds, referred to as the 1002 lands in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.
Because it is in the United States, this area is outside the management board’s authority, but it monitors the issue very closely because it is a critical habitat for the herd.
Slogans such as Protect the Refuge are a bit misleading. Much of the refuge is already booming with oil and gas activity. The 1002 portion, however, requires an act of Congress to allow oil and gas leasing.
The 1002 lands are possibly the single most critical habitat for the herd. When the calves are born elsewhere, calf survival tends to decline.
What if the 1002 lands are allowed to be developed? The board is working to identify management options that will best mitigate any damage. Unfortunately, whatever measures might be imposed, the herd’s population would risk a significant drop.
And whether hunting restrictions are imposed or there are simply fewer caribou available to hunt, 1002 development would probably affect Porcupine caribou harvesters.
If the management board opposes the Americans developing 1002, what does it have to say about developments in Canada, where local people might reap the benefits as well as suffer the environmental consequences?
Again, the board won’t object to responsible development, but says development cannot take place responsibly on the calving grounds — at all. In other parts of the range, development might take place responsibly, if precautions are taken.
The board looks at developments in Eagle Plains with serious concern and is recommending measures to mitigate threats to the herd and its habitat.
The board also recommends ongoing studies and monitoring to ensure everything possible is being done to mitigate damage.
The herd does not use any particular winter range as regularly or predictably as they use the calving range. But whichever winter range they do use in any year, is important to the caribou that year.
Some researchers suggest that wintering habitat might be as important as the calving grounds, but that the impacts of development in the winter habitat are different and less understood.
The Eagle Plains area is an important part of the herd’s winter habitat. It is rich in lichen, which is an important part of a caribou diet.
Although caribou are most resilient to human activity during the wintertime, caribou still tend to avoid areas of human activity.
Too much activity in Eagle Plains might displace the caribou from their chosen habitat. In addition, dust from traffic might affect the quality and quantity of lichen.
Increased activity in the area might also introduce invasive plant species, which could further threaten their food supply.
And if the caribou don’t find enough food in the winter, over-winter survival, calf survival and pregnancies could be affected.
Increased human activity along the Dempster Highway could also increase hunting pressure on the herd, as well as lead to fatal collisions between caribou and vehicles.
The board is not as concerned about any of these potential effects in isolation as it is with what is called “cumulative effects.” When looked at in combination, especially when considered together with activities in other parts of in the herd’s range, the effects could be serious.
It is important to bear in mind, too, that the population of the herd appears to be declining.
A photocensus, the most authoritative method of counting the caribou, has not been available for some time. But some researchers estimate the herd to consist of approximately 110,000 caribou.
An attempt was made by the researchers this spring to get an authoritative count by photocensus, and we should know in the coming weeks whether that was successful.
The management board passed a resolution in November 2006 stating that the herd is in immediate need of conservation.
Part of that responsibility involves assessing the oil and gas developments in the herd’s range and making recommendations.
This spring, the board made recommendations to the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board about a proposed project at Eagle Plains, to reduce its impact on the herd.
In April, the management board made submissions to government of Yukon about oil and gas rights dispositions in the Eagle Plains area.
The government recently awarded 13 of the dispositions, and projects will require approvals from the assessment board before major activities can commence. The Porcupine caribou management board will be watching the developments and making assessment board submissions as required.
Although the Mackenzie Gas Project does not directly affect the herd, it might indirectly affect the herd’s habitat by increasing the traffic on the Dempster Highway.
The management board made recommendations to the Joint Review Panel to ensure the herd is protected in the best way possible if that project proceeds.
In the Yukon oil and gas rights disposition review this spring, as well as in the assessment board submissions and in the Joint Review Panel submission, the management board recommended proceeding with caution and included specific activities to ensure the projects affect the caribou and its habitat as little as possible.
Such recommendations included measures such as reducing hunting pressure, reducing risk of vehicle collisions with caribou, restricting development to resilient landscapes, creating winter-only roads to lessen impact on habitat, hiring wildlife monitors and empowering conservation officers to close activities when many caribou are nearby.
The management board advocates long-term monitoring programs to assess cumulative effects of human activity on ecosystems. Additional studies on issues like invasive species are also recommended.
Oil and gas development is still in its infancy in the Yukon. Given the careful reviews by government, as well as assessments by the assessment board and the Yukon Water Board, the caribou management board is hopeful that projects can proceed responsibly. And the board will continue to review and make recommendations to help guide the decision-making bodies.
Submitted by the Porcupine Caribou Management Board