Apparently stable for now, Alaska’s biggest caribou faces a tough future of industrial development and climate warming

A dramatic drop that saw the herd halved seems to be over. But there are still threats.

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Caribou from the Western Arctic Caribou herd migrate south through the DeLong Mountains in the Western Brooks Range in Alaska’s Arctic in a 2012 file photo. (National Park Service)

Alaska’s largest caribou herd is showing signs of strength, but there is trouble on the horizon.

The Western Arctic Caribou Herd, which roams northwestern Alaska, is estimated at 244,000 animals, a sign of stabilization after a population plunge that brought the herd from 490,000 in 2003 to less than half of that a decade later, state and federal biologists reported. Other good signs in the population are a high birth rate and high rates of calf survival, biologists told the Western Arctic Caribou Herd Working Group last week.

The herd’s status and challenges were reviewed at the Dec. 10-12 annual meeting of the working group, a panel representing people with interest in the herd — Alaska Native villages dependent on the caribou for food and cultural preservation, commercial hunting guides and transporters dependent on the caribou for their livelihoods, conservationists and others. The working group advises the state and federal governments’ caribou-related policies, most notably state hunting regulations, and it holds it annual meeting each December in Anchorage.

The herd’s condition is a mixed picture, said Lincoln Parrett, a biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. While the steep decline appears to be over, there was a moderate decline since the last population census — about 3 percent annually — from 2017 to 2019, he said. And there is evidence of elevated mortality among adult females, he said.

That, and the level of uncertainty around the numbers, justifies a cautious management approach endorsed by the working group, Parrett said. “The group is sort of understanding that we’re not entirely sure that it is stable, by any means,” he said,

The Western Arctic Caribou Herd is probably the largest in North America, Parrett said. That status emerged after the population collapse in eastern Canada’s George River and Leaf River herds. Nunavut’s Qamanirjuag Herd may be about the same size as the Western Arctic herd, but its population census is dated and it has been declining for several years.

Even if the Western Arctic herd is healthy at present, proposed oil, mining and road development in the herd’s calving grounds and migration corridors pose serious threats to its future, working group members said at their meeting.

“There’s no turning back. Once these roads and mines start getting build, it’s over,” said Brad Saalsaa, a member representing the transporter sector. “I just absolutely cannot see of anything good coming from new roads and mines being built in the calving and migration grounds of the caribou.”

Overlaying all is the danger posed by the rapidly warming Arctic climate.

Rick Thoman, a scientist with the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, briefed the group on projections of future conditions in the herd’s habitat.

If greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rate, the northwestern Alaska village of Ambler — an example of a site within the caribou herd’s range — in 2070 will have temperatures similar to those of Homer, a southern Alaska coastal city with a mild climate, Thoman told the group. Even with greenhouse gas reductions, he said, Ambler in 2070 will have temperatures similar to those of Willow, a small community north of Anchorage — and far south of the Arctic Circle.

Thoman’s presentation was “sobering,” Parrett said.

Climate change impacts could be mixed for caribou, he said, with some possible benefits, such as a longer grazing season for Alaska’s smaller Teshekpuk herd, which does not migrate south from the North Slope in winter. But impacts could be devastating, too, he said.

“Worst case scenario is it gets cold early and it rains on the ground. That would be disastrous,” he said.

Rain atop snow can create a slippery, icy barrier that locks up the lichen that caribou and other tundra grazers need to eat.

Rain-on-snow events, which are expected to increase in northern Alaska as winters warm, were among the reasons for declines of caribou and reindeer across the far north. Globally, the populations fell by 56 percent in two decades, according to the 2018 Arctic Report Card issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Rain-on-snow events have caused mass die-offs of reindeer, caribou and musk oxen, and winter rains were cited by state biologists as a possible contributor to the Western Arctic Caribou Herd’s recent decline.

One possible sign of climate change is the new tendency of caribou to stay in relatively northern areas in winter. In the winter of 2018-19, only 20 percent of collared caribou migrated south of Alaska’s Brooks Range. That was the smallest percentage to date for caribou overwintering south of the Brooks Range, but part of a five-year trend, biologists reported. But whether that is evidence of a warming climate is, for now, “just wild speculation,” Parrett said, because caribou can change behavior and movements for a variety of reasons.

But people who are trying to gather wild foods are certainly feeling the effects of climate change, said Wanda Kippi, a working group member representing the Inupiat villages of Atqasuk, Utqiagvik and Wainwright.

Fish are changing, blueberries and cranberries and not as plentiful and last spring, when she was out hunting, she got stranded by a quick thaw and had to call or help. “I got stuck going home. There was too much slush on the land, on the tundra,” she said.

Other threats to the caribou, the working group members said, come from various forms of proposed development.

One is the Trump administration’s plan to open up more of the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska to oil development.

The administration in November released a draft environmental impact statement with alternatives for rewriting an Obama-era integrated activity plan that put about half of the 23 million-acre reserve off-limits to development. Up to 81 percent of the reserve would now be available for leasing, under the draft released by the Bureau of Land Management. Among the areas being eyed for potential new oil leasing are some set aside specifically for caribou protection.

Already, there are signs the oil industry is eager to develop areas that are currently protected but could be opened to development under a new plan.

In a Dec. 11 lease sale held at the same time as the working group’s annual meeting, bids were submitted for over 1 million of the nearly 4 million acres offered for leasing, and the more than $11 million received in total high bids, making it the richest NPR-A lease sale held since 2006.

The big industry response “reflects the continuing interest in developing resources in the largest single block of federally managed lands within the United States,” Ted Murphy, associate Alaska state director for the BLM, said in a telephone news conference after the bids were opened on Dec. 11. “It’s a good indication that there is indeed a lot of interest in development in moving the national petroleum reserve forward.”

Murphy noted that the tracts receiving bids “do bump up against” the borders of what is available for leasing under the existing activity plan.

Working group members were less enthusiastic about the results of the lease sale.

Some said the rewrite of the activity plan, which is expected to be made final in 2020, is moving too fast. The draft environmental impact statement should not have been released before the Dec. 11 lease sale, they said.

And the stakes are large, they said.

“When you develop and put infrastructure in a place, that affects subsistence. It doesn’t ever change back to the way it was,” working group member Tom Gray, representing the reindeer herders of the Seward Peninsula, told BLM representatives attending the meeting. Oil development has brought many benefits to Alaska, Gray said, “but there’s also negative things.”

Another working group concern is the federal and state project seeing to punch a 211-mile road through the Brooks Range foothills to enable mining development of northwestern Alaska’s isolated but copper-rich Ambler district.

The Ambler Mining District Industrial Access Project, if brought to reality, would allow deposits of copper and other minerals to be commercialized. The Ambler Mining District is tucked away in a remote Arctic region of northwestern Alaska.  Without a road, the minerals deposits are considered stranded from markets.

The BLM in August issued a draft environmental impact statement on the mining road project. A final environmental impact statement and a decision on the road plan are expected in 2020, possibly early in the year. The main company involved in Ambler district exploration — and the main potential beneficiary of the Ambler road — is Canada-based Trilogy Metals Inc. The Ambler projects are Trilogy’s only assets, Cal Craig, the company’s director of permitting and mining, told the working group.

Over the years, working group members have expressed opposition to the Ambler road, and some are also worried about the effects of mining itself.

Jake Jacobson, a hunting guide representative, questioned Craig about Trilogy’s plan to store tailings, the waste-rock material produced by the mining process. “I believe it’s totally impossible to not taint the groundwater with tailings,” Jacobson said.

The various threats to the habitat make the working group’s responsibilities heavy, members said in closing statements.

“Caribou is very critical to our heritage,” said Pollock Simon, representative of Inupiat villages along northwestern Alaska’s Koyukuk River. “We need to preserve our caribou not only for ourselves but for our children and grandchildren. That’s why we’re sitting here at this meeting.”