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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

At ANWR: In Search of Caribou

Air Date: Week of

The issue of oil drilling in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska will be decided upon next summer, and this possibility hasn't yet generated much public debate. But efforts to open another nearby tract of federal land to development have been the subject of heated battles for years. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge terrain hugs the Arctic Ocean and the Canadian border. Much of it is officially designated as wilderness. But a slice of the refuge's coastal plain was long ago left without such protection, because it harbors significant oil deposits. For years, oil interests have tried to open it to exploration, and every time preservationists have beaten them back. Earlier this year, Living on Earth's Peter Thomson traveled to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for a first-hand look at the place and the people, and the caribou, at the center of the long-running debate.


KNOY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy. In a highly unusual move, the US Interior Department has released a draft environmental impact statement on oil drilling in Alaska's national petroleum reserve without naming a preferred course of action. The report lays out 5 alternatives, ranging from leaving the land untouched to opening 4 and a half million acres to commercial exploration. Much of the area is important wildlife habitat, and over the next few months the government will solicit public input on whether development is appropriate. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has promised a decision by next summer. The issue of oil drilling in the petroleum reserve hasn't yet generated much public debate. But efforts to open another nearby tract of Federal land to development have been the subject of heated battles for years. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a barren terrain that hugs the Arctic Ocean and the Canadian border. Much of it is officially designated as wilderness. But a slice of the Refuge's coastal plain was long ago left without such protection, because it harbors significant oil deposits. For years, oil interests have tried to open it to exploration, and every time preservationists have beaten them back. Earlier this year, Living on Earth's Peter Thomson traveled to the Arctic refuge for a first-hand look at the place and the people at the center of the long-running debate.

(Running water)

THOMSON: We call it the frozen North, but summer does come to the Arctic.

(Running water continues)

THOMSON: A stream of water is pouring off a thick ice slab into a shallow pool on a gravel bar in the middle of a broad riverbed. The ice slab is maybe a quarter of a mile square. Its layers of turquoise and white suggest it's been here for years. But with the temperature near 70 and a warm rain brewing, it's hard to imagine it holding out much longer.

(Footfalls, cracking ice)

THOMSON: I'm standing on the gravel at the edge of the ice, lurking to the south of the Gray Mountains, where the river begins as glacial runoff, and the gap where it slips out of its valley onto the vast coastal plain. I follow the stream as it sidles past the ice field, cuts through the barren green tundra, and heads for the ocean 30 miles away. Alone on the Arctic Plain, I feel like I've traveled not just thousands of miles from home, but also eons back in time. The familiar elements are all here: earth, air, water, and sun. But they haven't yet been forged into the world I've known.

(Torrential rains and thunder; fade to plane engine)

THOMSON: To get to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, you have to fly on a series of ever-smaller planes.

(Plane engine continues)

THOMSON: In a jet from the Lower 48 to Fairbanks, over the convoluted coastline of southeast Alaska. Then a small cargo hauler that grinds over an untouched landscape of scrub forests, lakes, and rivers, to a gravel runway in an isolated village. Finally, a tiny bush plane that floats over the ghostly peaks of the Brooks Range, down the valley of a meandering river, and more like a dragonfly than a machine, onto the river's grassy floodplain.

(Propellers coming to a halt. A door opens.)

THOMSON: I step from the plane onto a landscape of muted colors and contours. The sides of the valley slope gently up toward rounded ridges, yellow-green giving way to gray-brown.

(Bird calls, some voices)

THOMSON: The sky is pale blue, and soft rays from the low sun play tricks with distance and scale. The only sounds are the hushed flow of the shallow Aichilk river and a few summering birds. I've come to the Arctic refuge with members of a Congressional delegation. They want to see the place that's become a perennial issue in Washington. There's oil here. The oil companies want in. Environmentalists want to keep them out. And the argument just won't die.

(Footfalls and rushing water)

THOMSON: But it's hard to think about politics here.

(Footfalls and rushing water, bird calls continue)

MILLER: What makes me want to come back again and again is the feeling that one gets from the sheer vastness of the landscape and a feeling of timelessness in the summer. Where you have the constant daylight.

THOMSON: Debbie Miller is a teacher and a writer from Fairbanks. She's been coming here every summer for almost 15 years. Her camp is 30 miles off to the east, and she's flown over to greet us. Sort of the welcome wagon lady of the Arctic Refuge.

MILLER: This is one of the few places we have in America where we don't have the manmade features. We don't have manmade trails. You know, you walk along caribou trails that have been etched in the tundra for thousands of years. You have a sense when you're climbing these mountains that gee, maybe I'm the first person that walked up this slope. And the silence. The silence is so great. You're able to just feel the pulse of the land.

THOMSON: What was the most perhaps amazing thing you first saw here when you first started coming here?

MILLER: The most dramatic spectacle we've ever witnessed was the porcupine caribou herd. About 30,000 of them walked by us one day. My husband and I were out alone on the coastal plain, and we looked over our shoulder and the whole horizon was filled with these silhouetted caribou. Before we knew it we were just surrounded by just thousands of animals swarming around us. And the sounds, I think, were the most overwhelming. Their hooves were clicking and they grunt and they snort, they bellow. The calves were bleating. Some people think of it as a river of life moving across the tundra, because you can't see a blade of grass. The land just becomes full of life. Animals, sound.

(Footfalls and rushing water continue)

THOMSON: Debbie Miller tells me there's a chapter on the caribou of the Arctic Refuge in her book Midnight Wilderness. I'll read it some day but right now, I want to see the animals.

(Footfalls over bones)

THOMSON: A little ways down the riverbed there is a small bone field, a partial spine, a femur, a shoulderblade. It's the remains of what looks like a young caribou stripped clean by a succession of animals and insects. The bones are starkly white against the dark soil. There are signs of caribou everywhere here: discard of antlers, well-worn paths, even fresh hoof prints. But without the eyes of an eagle, or the nose and ears of a wolf or a grizzly, I can't find them.

(Footfalls and bird calls)

THOMSON: There are lots of rare and wonderful animals in the Arctic Refuge. What conservationists jokingly call charismatic mega-fauna. There are polar bears and musk oxen, wolves, and birds that migrate from as far as Argentina. But it's the caribou to which defenders turn first, whenever there's talk of going after the oil here. Caribou are among the last great migratory herds in North America, and the porcupine caribou herd, which migrates between the Porcupine River in Canada's Yukon Territory and the coastal plane of the Arctic Refuge, is one of the largest in the world. It's also a main source of food for the Gwich'in Indians, who live in a handful of communities to the south and east of the Refuge.

(Rattling sounds)

FRANK: This traditional hunting tools, this one here. You rattle this and follow the caribou, and the caribou will think you're a caribou, so you can just walk up to them.

THOMSON: A set of caribou hooves laced together with caribou hide. It's a simple but effective hunting tool that Kenneth Frank shows me in his small wooden house in the tiny Gwich'in community of Arctic Village.

FRANK: For a thousand years the porcupine caribou herd feed the people. They just keep going back and forth, so that's how we survive here for 10,000 years.

THOMSON: Back and forth the caribou move, between their winter range to the south and their summer calving grounds in the Refuge to the north. Passing Gwich'in hunters along the way.

(Various sounds. Frank: "Watch your head.")

THOMSON: The air in Kenneth's house is thick with the smell of cooking meat. Across the room his wife Caroline tends the stove.

C. FRANK: I'm cooking the caribou heart. (Laughs)

THOMSON: Oh. How are you preparing it?

C. FRANK: I'm just cooking it. Has vitamin A, B, and C.

THOMSON: It smells delicious.

C. FRANK: Yeah. (Laughs)

THOMSON: Little goes to waste when the Gwich'in bring down a caribou. It's woven into virtually every part of their lives.

(Objects falling)

THOMSON: Kenneth rummages through a large box next to a rack of videotapes and CDS. He shows me a drum, a fur parka, a pair of snowshoes. Everything's made with caribou parts.

K. FRANK: You know, all the stuff that we have like the cloth, string, the bone we use for tools, and even tendons we use to make snares for small game. And how we sew our boots together, we use stuff from the caribou.

C. FRANK: The wisdom in the culture, the knowledge comes from the caribou.

THOMSON: Caroline Frank is a preschool teacher. Kenneth works at the village's center for substance abuse prevention. They've watched their community pass through difficult times recently. There are few jobs, little money for schools or health care, and all but 2 of their elders have died. And Gwich'in youth are increasingly drawn by the seductive lure of mainstream culture and city life to the south. But the Gwich'in still have the caribou and the stories and traditions that the hunt keeps alive. Gwich'in leaders believe the caribou is the social glue that holds their community together.

C. FRANK: Everything that we believe in comes from the caribou, and that's the only thing that the kids are hanging onto right now.

THOMSON: The Gwich'in strongly oppose oil drilling in the refuge. They fear it will harm the caribou and ultimately the future of their children.

K. FRANK: Their freedom will be taken away from them. Their freedom to live, you know, how they want to live. And then they will have nothing left, and that is really a scary thing for our generation.

(Treks through grass. Wind.)

THOMSON: You came up in May of 71?

MAUER: Twenty-six years, I guess. Since 81 I've been working in the Refuge.

THOMSON: Outside the Gwich'in community, if you want to learn about the porcupine caribou herd, people say Fran Mauer is your guy. He's a biologist for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and he's joined our group for a hike along the Aichilik River form our camp site. I want to know why the Gwich'in and others are so concerned about oil drilling. After all, the coastal plain, where the oil is, is just one small part of the caribou's range.

MAUER: Well, we know from the experience in the Prudhoe Bay area to the west of the Arctic Refuge that females with young calves are displaced by human activity. As a result of that displacement, we are now seeing reduced productivity in that herd. In the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, we have 10 times as many caribou using this landscape for habitat. And the area available to them is only one fifth as big.

THOMSON: Fran Mauer says the problem isn't pollution or any other direct threat to the caribou. The problem is mosquitos. The coastal plain is where the caribou go to escape the huge swarms of bugs. The cool sea breeze can keep the mosquitos away, Fran says, and if the air is still the caribou can run across the flat open tundra to make their own wind. But oil fields can make the caribou more vulnerable to the bugs.

MAUER: They're unable to obtain insect relief because they're blocked by roads and pipes and works of man, it may interfere with their ability to get fat for the winter. And if they're not fat enough for the winter, the cows either will not get pregnant at all, or they give birth to lightweight, weak calves that don't survive.

THOMSON: Are there other animals that would be affected by development in that small part of the Refuge?

MAUER: Well, there are. While it's appropriate to focus on the potential impacts of the porcupine caribou herd, I think an even greater impact is the effect that industrialization would have on the entire system. The entire predator-prey complex would stand to be affected here. So there's a lot at stake, more than just the caribou.

THOMSON: Fran Mauer has spent years alone with the animals of the Arctic Refuge. But it seems that he never gets tired of watching them.

MAUER: (Panting while hiking) We once saw a wolf hunting in the willows, and eventually it flushed a ptarmigan out of the willows. And as the ptarmigan flew up through the willows and it got into clear going, an eagle appeared out of nowhere like a streak of lightning and caught the ptarmigan, knocking feathers out as it carried it away. And the wolf sat and watched it go. Probably thought, there goes my meal. Obviously, the eagle was watching the situation and timed its dive perfectly. The ptarmigan was distracted by the ground predator, not watching for an aerial threat. And got caught.

THOMSON: Down by the river we'd spotted wolf tracks in the mud, as sharp and clear as if they'd been made within the hour. And grizzly bear prints, older but startlingly large, maybe 9 inches across. Still, no sign of caribou. Now we're heading up a hillside. It's a relief to move from the lumpy wet tundra to the dry loose rock. Just over the top, our group suddenly stops.

(Buzzing sounds)

THOMSON: There's a band of lean gray creatures moving toward us. We squat down amid the mosquitos to make ourselves as invisible as possible.

(Buzzing continues)

THOMSON: We watch silently as they approach: 7 caribou, a big dark male with a full rack of antlers leads the way. Smaller, lighter ones pull up the rear.

(Buzzing continues)

THOMSON: The animals take little notice of us. They pass 50 yards or so away, up over the hill and out of sight. It's hardly the huge mass of caribou we've heard about, but even this small band has sent a charge through the group.

(Buzzing continues. People laugh)

WOMAN: That was something. Wow. That was great.

MAN: That was scheduled.

MAN 2: Yeah, damn it Fran, next time I want em here on time.

(The group laughs)

THOMSON: We pick up our gear and head off down the hill.

(Clanking sounds and conversation)

MATUMIAK: I was very skeptical at first when oil was first discovered. As time goes by, myself I saw that oil industry and the wildlife can coexist.

THOMSON: Four hundred miles away, to the west of the Arctic Refuge, Warren Matumiak sees the prospect of oil drilling very differently than Fran Mauer or the Gwich'in Indians. He's an Inupiat Eskimo, a native of the Arctic slope and a resident of the city of Barrow. Warren is almost 70 years old, a former planning and wildlife director for the Inupiat regional government. He's watched the oil industry at work in Inupiat territory in the Arctic Plain for 25 years. Like the Gwich'in, the Inupiat also hunt caribou, and Warren says the Gwich'in have nothing to worry about.

MATUMIAK: We have invited Gwich'in people to come up here and visit our town, because we knew that they still think that industry will destroy anything, and we wanted them to see what we went through, how things have changed developing oil.

THOMSON: Warren agrees with the oil industry that carefully built and well- managed oil fields have little impact on Caribou or other wildlife. And the Inupiat government is eager to see the Arctic refuge opened up to drilling. They stand to reap millions of dollars in income and taxes from oil development there, as they have from the fields at Prudhoe Bay. Warren Matumiak grew up in the days before oil, and he has no doubt about the importance of that money.

MATUMIAK: I know what poverty is like. We're enjoying the benefits, now. A lot of things that we never have, especially clean water. You know, we've got roads. We've got health clinics in all the villages. Everything has been changed for the better. You can't it's like heaven, you know, but the living has been good.

THOMSON: Oil money has transformed the lives of the Inupiat, and their leaders want to keep as much of it flowing as possible. But their neighbors, the Gwich'in, who live across the mountains from the oil deposits, wouldn't share in the bounty. They stand to gain nothing and fear losing everything. For now, the issue has reached a stalemate. The Refuge will likely stay closed to drilling as long as Bill Clinton remains President. He's consistently threatened to veto any attempt to open it up. But efforts to put the entire Refuge permanently off-limits to oil have also gone nowhere.

(A motor gurgles)

THOMSON: Back at the air strip by our campsite, one of the rickety little planes which brought us here touches down.

(Motor comes to a halt)

THOMSON: It's returning from a flyover of the easternmost reaches of the Refuge, looking for the main part of the caribou herd.

WOMAN: So how many caribou do you think we saw?

MAN: It was in the thousands.

WOMAN: Yes. (Laughs)

MAN: Tens of thousands, I'd say.

WOMAN 2: So, it was fabulous, eh?

MAN: Yes it was.

WOMAN 1: Yes.

WOMAN 2: Oh, that's so good.

WOMAN 1: It's amazing.

WOMAN 2: That's great.

THOMSON: There was only enough room in the plane for some of the Congressional people from Washington, and this was the only trip. We're heading home tomorrow. I'm disappointed, to say the least. The massive caribou herd is so close, but I won't get to see it.

(Bird calls)

THOMSON: But that wasn't the point of my trip here. And more importantly, anyone getting to see the caribou herd isn't the point of the Arctic Refuge. I remember something Debbie Miller told me the day before, out on the river.

MILLER: I feel incredibly fortunate that our family has had the opportunities we've had up here. We've learned a tremendous amount from the land. It's given us a lot. But the true reason why this place is here is really to protect the wildlife and the habitats that these creatures need to survive. I have received letters from people that live in the Midwest, or in Florida. They write to me that they're so happy that there is a place like this in America, even though they'll never visit it. They may never get here, but they're glad that there are places like this left on Earth. We've lost so many.

(Wind and flowing water, bird calls. Fade to rain)

THOMSON: Two AM. A steady rain beats down on my tent. It's still daylight, even under the heavy gray sky. We'll fly out in the morning, through the clouds and over the mountains to the south. Tonight, I drift back asleep as the hypnotic rhythm of the rain becomes the clicking of 100,000 hooves.

(Rain continues)

THOMSON: For Living on Earth, I'm Peter Thomson in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska.



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