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Canada, First Nations Push Back on Trump’s Arctic Refuge Drilling Plan

The federal government, the Yukon and Northwest Territories governments, and several First Nations are pushing back on the Trump administration’s plans to open Porcupine caribou calving grounds to oil and gas drilling, in violation of international agreements set up to protect the territory.

“Canada is concerned about the potential transboundary impacts of oil and gas exploration and development planned for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Coastal Plain,” Environment and Climate Change Canada declared, in a letter to the Alaska office of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. “Canada is particularly concerned that oil and gas exploration and development will negatively affect the long-term reproductive success of the Porcupine caribou herd.”

“Much of the wildlife that inhabits the…refuge is shared with Canada,” the NWT added. “The conservation of these transboundary shared resources is very important to Indigenous groups.”

The Canadian Press reports that Canada and the United States have exchanged at least three diplomatic notes on the issue, with Canada pointing out the caribou should be covered under four international agreements, including two dealing with polar bears and one with migratory birds. “The Porcupine herd is one of the few remaining healthy caribou populations in the North,” CP notes, “and a crucial resource for Indigenous people.”

But Bobbi Jo Greenland-Morgan, head of the Gwich’in Tribal Council, said it would be tough to make the case. “We’re not dealing with the same government we’ve been dealing with for the past 30 years,” she said.

Greenland-Morgan “said her people have been fighting for decades to keep the Porcupine calving grounds free of development—but this time feels different,” CP notes. “We’ve always had to do this,” she said. “But with the Trump administration, it’s been more challenging.

In December, the U.S. published a draft environmental impact study for its plan to allow drilling in the refuge. CP says the study acknowledges the risk to Porcupine herd, and the herd’s importance to First Nations that account for 85% of the annual caribou harvest.

“Potential impacts, particularly those relating to changes in calving distribution and calf survival, are expected to be more intense for the [herd] because of their lack of previous exposure to oil field development,” the study states, and First Nations “would be among the most likely to experience potential indirect impacts.”

International law professor Michael Byers told CP the U.S. may have already broken existing binational agreements by committing to sell oil and gas drilling leases this year, before consulting Canada on a decision that affects the herd’s future. “There’s an obligation to consult that isn’t being implemented right now,” he said.