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.”