Fate of North America’s Largest Caribou Herd Tied to GOP Tax Reform Push

A male caribou in Alaska

WASHINGTON (CN) – A Republican effort to roll expanded oil drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge into the GOP tax reform plan has reignited a long-running debate over how best to protect a primary breeding location for North America’s largest caribou herd.

The caribou trek from Canada’s Yukon Territory some 1,500 miles to the coastal plains of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a 20 million acre expanse on Alaska’s North Slope.

Their destination is a 1.5 million acre swath inside the refuge where they calve and graze. Nearby, indigenous musk oxen and polar bears also sustain on the land’s resources.

Last week, the state’s Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski successfully negotiated access to resources of another kind in the refuge: oil.

After the GOP called on Murkowski to find $1 billion to pay for proposed tax cuts, she introduced legislation to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resource opening drilling in the refuge, and in the particular, an area where the caribou migrate.

On Nov. 15, a majority of Republicans pushed the bill through committee over the objections of Democrats.

Throughout the debate, Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, repeatedly questioned if Republicans were properly considering impacts to wildlife and native Alaskan Indian populations.

“I know people would like to say caribou or polar bears want to cozy up to a pipeline, but that’s just not true … we have an indigenous people who need the support of this food source and [now the caribous’] migratory habits are in question,” Cantwell lamented.

If tax reform passes, Murkowski’s rider means the bulk of refuge stewardship is handed over to the Bureau of Land Management, cutting out current manager, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Murkowski touts the change as a chance to streamline exploration opportunities, ease land leasing woes and expedite opportunities for jobs and profits for Alaskans.

Cantwell, who called the bill a “cynical effort to open the heart of [the refuge] for oil,” sharply criticized the legislation’s transfer of land management rules. Murkowski’s bill ensures stewardship is transferred from guidance found under the National Wildlife Refuge Administration Act to very different standards found in the National Petroleum Reserve Production Act.

“The [refuge] was established to protect wildlife,” Cantwell emphasized, warning if stewardship is guided by the production act, exploration will always take priority over environment.

Mark Salvo, vice president of landscape conservation at Defenders of Wildlife,  said the organization is taking the threat to caribou seriously because drilling in the refuge stands to upset animal behaviors that have occurred for millennia.

“Every year for thousands of years the Porcupine herd has migrated hundreds of miles to reach the coastal plain to birth and raise their young,” Salvo said.
“Individual caribou from the Porcupine herd have been recorded to travel 3,000 miles in one year – the longest of any land animal in the world.

“The infrastructure, chronic noise and spills associated with oil drilling could cause the caribou to abandon these historic grounds, forcing them into the mountains where forage value is low and predators more abundant,” he continued. “We are also very concerned about how drilling might affect polar bears, a species that is already contending with climate change impacts on its habitat and food supply. The coastal plain is designated critical habitat for the threatened bear, and oil drilling, even the exploratory phases, has had observed effects on the species.”

Salvo said Defenders of Wildlife also shares Sen. Cantwell’s concerns over the change of stewardship standards if drilling commences and the Fish and Wildlife Service is left out of the loop. Traditionally, the service monitors compliance with the Endangered Species Act, legislation which protects polar bears among other creatures.

“In December 2010, the Fish and Wildlife Service established a wide area in northern Alaska, including [the area marked for drilling] and a considerable area offshore, as critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) for polar bears,” Salvo said. “The designation provided a stronger role for the ESA in shaping any federal agency activities, such as energy development, taking place in critical habitat. “

When land management guidance under ESA, federal agencies are legally bound to avoid destructive action. If that standard vanishes, so might the habitat for endangered wildlife like the polar bears and threatened species like the caribou.

What Defenders would like to avoid is seeing a ripple effect of negative impacts on caribou young like can be seen with  female polar bears. Bears in and around the refuge have responded to climate change, by relocating their birthing spots.

“[Many are] moving more of their dens to locations onshore, and many females that historically denned on land to the west of Prudhoe Bay have moved their dens to the east, into or nearer the Refuge.[1] This shift increases the importance of the Refuge’s coastal plain… and adds to the significance of consultation under the Endangered Speices Act in any federal action related to exploration,” Salvo said.

Rebecca Logan says she and other locals understand Alaska’s priorities better than anyone.  Logan is the CEO of the Alaska Support Industry Alliance, a nonprofit trade association representing 30,000 Alaskan workers and 600 businesses and organizations servicing the oil and gas mining industry.

“Nobody in the U.S. does a better job protecting and developing resources of Alaska than those who live here. We don’t just live here. We work and play. We’re very conscientious. Responsible resource development is done best here,” Logan said Tuesday.  “People who have concerns about the caribou aren’t from Alaska. They get involved, use information and pictures [to prove a point] but that herd has done nothing but prosper. People up here aren’t worried about that … development plans that tend to be approved are ones made at a distance from the local wildlife. The herd will be pretty far from actual development sites if drilling goes on.”

But “what’s best” for the Alaskans depends on who’s asked. The native Gwich’in tribe resist drilling since they rely on the caribou for food. During a senate committee hearing on Nov. 2, Gwich’in representative Sam Alexander told lawmakers energy development pushes caribou off the land and forces Gwich’in to give up their traditional diet, forcing them to consume “highly processed food” instead.

“We’d be looking at a steady diet of Spam, macaroni and cheese and other shelf-stable delicacies often at four to five times the price of what you would find in the Lower 48,” he told the committee.

Matthew Rexford, who grew up in the Inupiat Eskimo village of Kaktovik and now serves as president of the Kaktovik Inupiat Corporation, told the Associated Press last week that his village – the only village actually inside refuge boundaries– relied on caribou and whales to survive for years.

But the Katovik escaped “starvation and third-world conditions,” he told the AP,  when oil development was finally underway at nearby Prudhoe Bay years ago.

Conflicting opinions also exist over projections on profit from drilling. According to the Center for American Progress, drilling isn’t just harmful to wildlife but amounts to “fiscal foolishness.”

Proposed estimates by Congress suggest drilling would yield $37.5 million over 10 years but that’s based on old leasing sale data from a 1998 U.S. Geological survey, the center said. That specific report was revised in 2010. Revisions suggests oil available for extraction actually plummeted 90 percent since 1998.

On Tuesday, Jenny Rowland, the center’s public lands research and advocacy manager, said uncertainty over the amount of available oil would have been enough to kill a controversial rider like Murkowski’s in a “normal legislative process.”

“The drive to drill [there] is also part of a broader push coming from both Republican leadership in Congress and in the administration to sell out our parks, public lands, and other national treasures to the oil and gas industry,” she said.

Daren Beaudo, a spokesperson for oil giant ConocoPhillips, said his company will continue to monitor the developments unfolding at the refuge. The refuge has “tremendous potential,” and would be considered “against other opportunities [for drilling] in [its] portfolio,” he said.

Rebecca Logan acknowledged energy development talk often makes environmentalists uneasy but wanted to make something clear: if Congress passes the tax package, development doesn’t happen overnight.

“There’s a lot of lead time before anyone gets to drilling,” she said, adding caribou will go largely unmolested.  “The only thing you’ll find out here when a lease is first secured is engineers and people doing environmental impact studies.”

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