COLUMN: Survival of one of the last migratory herds in North America

The Porcupine Caribou battle to stay alive within the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge

  • Aug. 11, 2018 1:30 p.m.

By Bethany Paquette

Though unknown to many North Americans, a large conservation battle has been taking place since 1980 over a specific piece of the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge known as the calving grounds.

This piece of land is essential for the survival of one of the last large migratory herds in North America, the Porcupine caribou. To better understand the trials these caribou must face, we embarked on a journey to intercept this epic migration and experience first hand a few of the many obstacles that stand in their way.

This year, the battle for these lands has become even more heated as the American government opened this sacred land for oil and gas exploration, and drilling. This manmade environmental threat has the potential to greatly affect the future of the caribou herd, as well as the ecosystem and the people whom strongly rely upon the caribou for survival.

The Porcupine caribou number around 200,000. Each spring, this herd makes its way from the northwestern fringe of the Northwest Territories, the Yukon, and northeastern Alaska to the coastal plains of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Sometimes travelling more than 3,000 miles a year, the area to which they are drawn has been their calving grounds for the last 30,000 years.

The journey of the Porcupine herd begins with the migration of the pregnant cows, who make it the refuge first to calve. After calving is done, the rest of the yearlings and bulls join the cows and their young.

In an attempt to witness this remarkable migration of creatures, we traversed through the land, often using their trails and attempting to choose the most viable path.

Day 2 in Caribou Pass, we had not seen too many caribou and had decided to go for some hikes around camp. Upon getting over the first ridge out of camp we stumbled across a herd that had been bedded down out of sight. Within this herd was the first of many calves that we would see. In a journey of many unexpected events this calf sighting was such a reassurance and relief that more were likely to come. (Photo by Bethany Paquette)

However, travelling through this arctic land was anything but easy. What appeared flat was either littered with large tussocks or marsh, and more often than not, both. The easiest method was to travel along the ridges, but this involved many steep ascents and descents on slippery shale and scree slopes.

Snow drifts yet to melt were almost always lying across our path. At first glance, the drifts would appear to be no deeper than our ankles. But as we began breaking trail, it became apparent with each step we were mistaken, and what should have been a short walk turned into an exhausting ordeal of muscling through sometimes hip-deep snow.

Our journey was only a trivial portion of what the Porcupine caribou endure during their migration through the refuge to their calving grounds.

When they choose to stay in the valleys, they must traverse tussock-filled areas, scarce in flat and dry land. The permafrost prevents water from draining into the ground, resulting in the tussocks often being surrounded by pools and streams of water a few inches deep.

A stack of moose and caribou antlers in the Arctic Village, Alaska. Caribou are a cornerstone of the Gwich’in cultures, economics, and health. Harvested caribou will provide for families throughout the year. (Photo by Bethany Paquette)

When they move to the mountain ridges, travel becomes easier and faster, but predators also become more abundant. The myriad river and creek crossings are frigid and may be deep and swift, swollen by the melt of winter’s snowpack.

Yet, despite this gruelling journey, the destination is all worth the effort to the caribou.

The calving grounds are a place of respite from the usual day-to-day challenges. The open expanse provides plenty of nutritious food, fewer predators, and the close proximity to the ocean provides a cool breeze that keeps the bugs at bay until further into summer.

These unique conditions not only enable the caribou to fatten up for the winter but also provide the calves with an eight- to 11-per-cent higher chance of survival.

Two mothers and their calves make their way through a deep snow drift yet to melt on the Arctic Tundra. The calves stay close to their moms for the first few months in order to receive a fatty- nutrient rich milk that help them to grow strong and be able to endure all that the Arctic throws at them. (Photo by Bethany Paquette)

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1960 by public land order 2214, and as stated in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Brochure, the purpose is was for “the preservation of unique wildlife, wilderness and recreational values… the initial campaign to establish this refuge was underlined by an interwoven set of both tangible and intangible values — cultural, symbolic, and spiritual values as well as wildlife, ecological, scenic, and recreational values.”

In addition to the caribou, the refuge is vital for 36 other species of land mammals, nine marine mammal species, 36 species of fish and 180 species of birds from four different continents.

In 1980, U.S. Congress passed the Alaska Lands Act, which more than doubled the size of the refuge, and authorized a study of the oil and gas potential of the northern area – the primary area that the Porcupine caribou use for calving.

One of six Grizzly Bears seen along the Clarence River outside the Coastal Plains. We spotted this particular Grizzly moseying his way towards us, we quickly packed up and started heading up the hill beside us. Once at a comfortable distance we hunkered down and watched as he made his way in front of us, did a bear rub, and then continued on in search of roots and an old kill he had buried. (Photo by Bethany Paquette)

This law has been the source of a conservation battle that rages to this day.

In 1987, Canada and the U.S government signed a treaty to protect both the Porcupine caribou and their habitat. However, on Dec. 22, 2017, the U.S. signed a bill that has opened up the refuge to oil exploration and drilling. Since then, the conservation battle over the calving grounds has become even more heated.

The 13 Gwich’in First Nation communities across Alaska and northern Canada have been advocates for the protection of the refuge and the Porcupine caribou.

In these small villages, many of which can only be reached by air, picking up supplies isn’t as simple as walking to the corner store. Any essentials that cannot be derived from the land have to be flown in.

An old caribou kill found on a plateau in the foothills just outside the coastal plains. Just the day before we watched as a grizzly uncovered this old kill and finished it off before moving on his way. Wolves, Grizzlies and Golden Eagles are the main predators of the Porcupine Caribou often preying on the weak, old, and new born calves. (Photo by Bethany Paquette)

In Arctic Village, Alaska, the price per pound of a plane load is charged anywhere from 85 cents to $1.85. The result is that a simple can of fruit is close to $7.

The harvesting of traditional foods such as caribou is a cornerstone of these northern cultures, their economics, health and critical food security. The Porcupine caribou are one of Gwich’in’s largest traditional sources of food – providing enough meat for families to make it through the year.

Throughout the world, the seasons and weather of 2018 have been abnormal. Winter refused to release its grasp on the Arctic, and spring was delayed.

In our 10 days there, we were buffeted by two snowstorms and snowfall every day for the first six days. This late spring and lack of snowmelt resulted in the pregnant caribou forgoing their gruelling journey, with most the herd stopping east of their traditional calving grounds. They calved in the nutrient-diminished foothills near the Canadian-Alaskan border.

Remains of a Caribou just outside the coastal plains, near the Clarence River. (Photo by Bethany Paquette)

An event like this has only occurred a handful of times in the past – examples being 1987, 1988, 2000 and 2001, all of which heavily affected the population of the herd.

Unable to calve in the traditional area, the new moms and calves face many more dangers and trials, as the calves will have not yet been able to fully develop their strength in the sanctity of the refuge.

For the calves to become stronger, their mothers must have enough nutritious food to produce a fatty protein-rich milk. The stronger the calf, the more easily it will be able to endure the rest of the journey, including predation from wolves, grizzles and golden eagles, as well as possible separation and drowning.

A rough-legged hawk feather indicates a near by nest overlooking the Clarence River. The Coastal Plains in the Refuge are used for nesting, breeding and feeding by nearly 180 species of birds coming from four different continents. (Photo by Bethany Paquette)

On average, 20 per cent of calves do not survive the first few months, and that number grows to another eight to 11 per cent when they are not born within those traditional calving grounds.

As hard as this short journey was for us, we could only imagine the effects it had on the caribou and their offspring.

It is possible these challenges will reflect the very future the herd may face if drilling occurs within their preferred calving grounds.

Disturbances near the calving grounds during calving season could result in the pregnant cows moving away from the ideal area to a quieter place, with less nutritious food and an increase in predators.

Should the whole herd migrate to an area with not enough proper food, they will enter the winter season without the required body fat, which could result in a higher overall mortality rate and a degradation of their ability to calve the following spring.

Caribou Herd make their way across the tundra heading for the Clarence River. A Calf is seen amongst the herd doing its best to keep up with all the adults thundering past. (Photo by Bethany Paquette)

Some believe the caribou will adapt after a few years, and the manmade disturbance won’t create a lasting problem for the animals and the ecosystem that sustains them.

But is it possible this spring was just a foreshadow of the hardships the caribou will face in the upcoming years, having to constantly battle increased odds, and the plethora of predators waiting for a just a moment of weakness?

The founder of the refuge, Lowell Summer, recognized the refuge as a “great natural spectacle, one of the last of its kind, where its native creatures can still have freedom to pursue their future, so distant, mysterious, and to us … scarcely imaginable.”

While the results are ultimately unknown, is the risk of disturbing this precious piece of land worth potentially ending one of the last great migratory herds left in North America?

 

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