The Gwich’in people of Yukon and Northwest Territories are appealing to Canadians and Americans for support, after the Trump administration opened a 60-day comment period on its plan to allow oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which includes the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd.
The comment period closes June 19, and the U.S. Sierra Club’s Our Wild America Campaign is inviting organizations to sign on to a letter of support for the Gwich’in until April 27.
“The needless threat of developing the Porcupine caribou herd’s calving grounds on the coastal plain of Alaska has now elevated this issue to involve all of North America,” said Dana Tizya-Tramm, a Vuntut Gwitchin councillor in Old Crow, Yukon, and the Gwich’ins’ lead on Arctic Refuge issues. “It is not just the Gwich’in or Indigenous peoples’ loss, but all of North America’s last healthy caribou herd whose future is now in question.”
She added that the Trump drilling plan, tacked on to an unrelated tax bill last fall, shows that the U.S. administration is disregarding traditional knowledge on the stability of Arctic ecosystems. “Heed the call, stand with the Gwich’in for what is right,” she urged. “We must each ask ourselves what is more important to us, life or oil.”
“This is a deeply Canadian issue,” said Chris Rider, executive director of the Yukon Chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. “Disturbing this fragile ecosystem could have a disastrous effect on the health of the Porcupine caribou herd and the Gwich’in. We need to tell the Trump administration that the only option at this point is simple: stop.”
Earlier this week, Yukon Environment Minister Pauline Frost said the two territories and the federal government were working on a joint submission “opposing energy activity on the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd,” The Canadian Press reports.
With up to 200,000 animals, the Porcupine herd “undergoes the longest land mammal migration on earth, travelling 2,400 kilometres between their calving grounds in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, through the boreal forest, and into the Yukon and Northwest Territories,” DeSmog Canada reports. “Gwich’in communities—home to Indigenous people who have subsisted off the land for millennia—call the calving grounds ‘the sacred place where life begins.’”
DeSmog notes that the Porcupine caribou are an exception to the rule in Canada, where caribou populations have dropped 50%, some herds have been wiped out, and others have declined by more than 80%. The crucial difference for the Porcupine herd is that its range is still largely intact.
“Caribou are incredibly sensitive to light and sound, and any construction in their calving grounds, during one of the most vulnerable phases of their lives, could lead them to abandon the area altogether,” DeSmog notes, citing CPAWS’ Rider.
“The race to overcome barriers to drilling, such as the necessity for an environmental review, is seen as the Trump administration trying to ensure leases are sold quickly and work starts well before the 2020 election, making it difficult to roll back legislation.” But “U.S environmental groups are vowing to fight all the way, and believe that a hefty number of Americans are on their side.”
“When we have an administration using Twitter to fire cabinet secretaries and rewrite plans for the entirety of America’s coastline, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised at the reckless, warp speed approach it is taking to put up oil rigs in one of the most iconic and wildest places left in America,” said Alaska Wilderness League Executive Director Adam Kolton. “Forget minimal effort. They can’t even be bothered to fake the effort needed to assess the impacts of leasing on wildlife and the environment, or meaningfully consult with the Gwich’in people whose culture is at stake.”