Caribou in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). The U.S. Department of Interior has decided to open the coastal plain of ANWR to oil leasing, a decision opposed by the Vuntut Gwitchin and Gwich’in Tribal Council. (Ken Madsen/Submitted)

U.S. government moves forward on decision for drilling in ANWR despite Gwich’in opposition

The coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is important caribou and polar bear habitat

The U.S. Department of Interior has decided to open the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil leasing, a decision opposed by the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation and Gwich’in Tribal Council.

“No amount of money can ever justify what is taking place here and anyone who says different is merely using their office or systems to craft complex excuses on a simple matter. It is time the world took notice that this is a human rights crisis,” said VGFN Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm in a Aug. 17 release.

The refuge is a 78,000-square-kilometre area of land in northeast Alaska that abuts the Canadian border. The U.S. government’s Aug. 17 decision opens up the majority of the refuge’s northern coastal plain for oil and gas development.

The area is an important breeding ground for both polar bears and the Porcupine caribou herd, in addition to bird species like the tundra swans and northern pintail.

It’s also known to the Vuntut Gwitchin as “Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit,” which translates to, “The Sacred Place Where Life Begins.”

VGFN and Gwich’in Tribal Council are particularly concerned that drilling and extraction activity could threaten the Porcupine caribou herd, an important source of food and cultural identity. A release by the nation also points out development would contribute to climate change and threaten Indigenous rights.

“In 1988 the Gwich’in were directed by the Elders to work in a good way until this sacred place is protected and we will listen to our Elders and not give up,” said Grand Chief Bobbie Jo Greenland-Morgan of the Gwich’in Tribal Council.

The region has remained undeveloped since it was protected by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1960.

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 into the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

The Yukon government has opposed development of the area in the past, but has yet to comment on the latest announcement.

The U.S. government estimates there are between 4.3 and 11.8 billion barrels of recoverable oil in the coastal plain area, which covers eight per cent of the total refuge.

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.

A coalition of environmental groups from both Canada and the U.S., and Indigenous groups in Alaska, Yukon and the Northwest Territories, disagree. They say the assessment process was rushed and the plan to begin leasing by the end of the year would have a devastating impact on threatened wildlife in the area.

“It is extremely disheartening to think a lease sale could occur this year based on the findings of [Bureau of Land Management’s] rushed and inadequate environmental review process that failed to identify these lands as the life blood of the Gwich’in Nation,” Greenland-Morgan said.

The Yukon chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, who have been working alongside the Gwich’in in opposition to the development, said drilling is not inevitable and a legal challenge is expected.

“It’s upsetting, but unsurprising, that the U.S. government released this decision to proceed with oil development in the Arctic Refuge,” said executive director Chris Rider in a statement.

The U.S. Department of Interior refused calls to hold hearings in Canada, but over 15,000 Canadians and 500 Yukoners weighed in against development during the U.S. government’s public feedback process, including many Gwich’in voices, according to the non-profit.

“Fortunately the U.S. government must abide by its own environmental laws and the environmental review of drilling in the Arctic Refuge is full of red flags. Our lawyers are currently reviewing the [Recording of Decision] and we are preparing for potential litigation,” Rider said.

Contact Haley Ritchie at

ANWRVuntut Gwitchin First Nation