Canadian report says oil development poses bigger risks to Arctic refuge’s caribou than US authorities admit

The report, written for several Canadian governmental bodies, cites gaps in BLM's pre-leasing analysis.

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Caribou from the Porcupine Herd graze on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s coastal plain with the Brooks Range in the distance. The herd is important to Indigenous hunters on both sides fo the U.S.-Canada border. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Trump administration officials pushing for oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge have understated the risks to caribou, scientists said in a report commissioned by governments in Canada.

If leasing and drilling proceeds on the refuge’s coastal plain, the Porcupine Caribou Herd that uses the area will face an increased likelihood of a severe population crash — a crash big enough to sharply restrict Indigenous hunting — said the report, by Canadian biologists and caribou experts Don Russell and Anne Gunn. Oil development raises the chances of such a population drop by as much as 23 percent, depending on the size of the herd when development starts, the report said. The herd roams across the U.S.-Canada border and is used by Indigenous hunters in both nations.

The caribou vulnerability report, released earlier this month, blasts the analysis contained in the draft environmental impact statement that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management issued in December in preparation for ANWR leasing.

That draft EIS, the Canadian biologists noted, states that the U.S. government should manage the refuge coastal plan “to ensure unhindered movement of caribou through the area.”

“We agree, but the evidence and procedures presented in the draft EIS offers little evidence that this goal is yet achievable,” said the biologists’ report.

The draft EIS “likely under-estimates the complexity of caribou behavior and mischaracterizes ‘habitation’ which could lead to lost opportunities for migration,” the report said.

The fate of the Porcupine Caribou Herd is one of the hottest issues of contention in the debate over ANWR drilling.

The herd roams between northeastern Alaska and northwestern Canada. It is named for the Porcupine River, which winds its way from the Yukon Territory’s Ogilvie Mountains to a section of the upper Yukon River in Alaska.

It is only North American caribou herd currently at its peak population, hitting a record size of 218,000 animals in the last reported census conducted by Alaska and Yukon biologists.

Its international status is the basis for a 1987 treaty that commits the Canadian and U.S. governments to conserve the herd.

The international status and treaty also give Canadian governments, from First Nations to the national level, the right to weigh in on Trump administration’s leasing plan.

Canadians intend to do so, government representatives said.

“The government of Yukon does intend to submit our comments on the draft environmental impact statement before the deadline of March 13,” said Roxanne Stasyszyn of Environment Yukon. The caribou vulnerability, which “points out quite a few things” that will inform those comments, she said.

To respond to the EIS by the deadline, the Canadian national government “has assembled a strong team” of partners from various levels of government, Veronica Petro, a spokeswoman for Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC), said in an email. The department and its partners “will carefully review the EIS and engage with them before formulating a position to determine what would be the best course of action in response to the U.S. Government,” she said. “ECCC and other partners will be assessing any consequences to the herd.

Canadians have long opposed oil development in the refuge, citing threats to the traditional hunting-dependent culture of the Gwich’in Athabascan people. The Gwich’in live along the southern and eastern edges of the refuge in both Alaska and Canada.

The new vulnerability report gives support to their anti-drilling arguments, and it cites what the authors consider to be big flaws in the BLM’s analysis to date of oil development impacts to the Porcupine herd.

Among the significant gaps in the BLM’s analysis is a failure to address the needs of maternal caribou after they give birth to their calves, the report said. The post-calving period is critical for adult females because they must eat enough to sustain themselves and produce milk for their young, but BLM’s EIS glosses over that life stage, the report said.

Even in years when weather condition prevent the caribou from giving birth in the 1002 Area, as the site slated for development is known, the animals migrate there after calving, demonstrating its importance to the herd’s adult females, the report notes.

Stasyszyn said it is significant that the caribou push into the refuge coastal plain “the second they are able to, so there’s something about this area.”

Other omissions in the BLM’s draft include the lack of details about expected population monitoring, lack of information about development’s cumulative effects and failures to include the most recent information about caribou’s negative responses to roads, the report said.

A big problem in the EIS, the report said, is its reliance on the smaller Central Arctic Caribou Herd as a proxy for the Porcupine herd. The Central Arctic herd uses the territory where oil development has spread out from the Prudhoe Bay area. But that herd’s territory is a broad coastal plain, with a much wider space for dispersal during and after calving, the report notes. In contrast, the Porcupine herd’s calving territory — the Arctic refuge’s coastal plain — “is much narrower and alternative calving habitats such as the foothills are available but have less forage,” along with higher numbers of predators that can target calves, the report says.

The Central Arctic Caribou Herd numbered only about 5,000 in the mid-1970s but boomed to about 70,000 in 2010 before dropping, as of 2016, to about 22,000 animals. The Central Arctic herd occasionally uses the ANWR coastal plain.

In emailed comments, the BLM’s project leader for the pre-leasing EIS said potential impacts to the Porcupine herd was one of the most important subjects raised in the more than 700,000 public comments received and considered when the draft was written. The agency “put tremendous effort in designing the alternatives in consideration of potential impacts to the Porcupine Caribou Herd as a result of indirect impacts that may occur from leasing,” said the emailed comments, from Nicole Hayes of the BLM’s Alaska office, the project leader.  “These include various mitigation measures through lease stipulations and required operating procedures for important habitat such as no surface occupancy, timing limitations, and design features.”

Any future on-the-ground oil development actions will require separate environmental analysis, Hayes’ comments said.

The BLM welcomes additional input from all interested parties, including those in Canada, she said.  Communication across the border is underway, she said.

“There is ongoing dialogue with the Canadian Government through the International Porcupine Caribou Board and through the State Department. The Department of Interior is also a member of the International Porcupine Caribou Board (IPCB) as was outlined in the 1987 Agreement Between the Government of Canada and the Government of the United States of America on the Conservation of the Porcupine Caribou Herd. and as such shares and gathers information relevant to the Environmental Impact Statement development.  In addition, the Bureau of Land Management received comments during scoping from Canadian Governments which was used to inform development of the Draft EIS and we entered into a data sharing agreement with the Department of Environment, Government of Yukon specific to the Porcupine Caribou Herd, to ensure the most up to date information is being used,” Hayes’ emailed comments said.

The Yukon News reported that Joe Balash, assistant Interior secretary for land and minerals development, said at a Washington, D.C. news conference that the report’s authors might lack understanding about the caribou-protecting mitigation proposed by BLM.

The Trump administration is pushing to hold an ANWR lease sale by the end of the year. Leasing was made mandatory in sweeping tax overhaul passed by Congress at the end of 2017.

This story has been updated with information from the BLM’s Alaska office.