ANCHORAGE, Alaska (CN) – The potential development of a road and the issuing of hunting permits in western Alaskan caribou country sparked heated discussion at the Western Arctic Caribou Herd Working Group annual meeting held Wednesday and Thursday in Anchorage.
The meeting brought together representatives from six geographic areas within western Alaska that encompass 24 Native villages, subsistence and sport hunters, hunting guides, reindeer herders, state and federal biologists, and land managers.
Representatives of Trilogy Metals Inc., based in Vancouver, British Columbia, and Alaska legislators also made presentations.
The purpose of the working group is to ensure the long-term conservation of the Western Arctic caribou herd and the ecosystem on which it depends, combining indigenous knowledge and Western science to guide regulations and permitted activities that could impact the health of the herd.
Since its establishment in 1997, a majority of the group’s recommendations have focused on hunting regulations and conservation actions, such as reducing the number of animals allowed per hunt, and restrictions on air traffic over active migration routes.
Remote communities depend on caribou to provide food during winter months, and they are important to traditional Alaskan Native culture. Caribou sport hunts bring revenue into the state from hunting license fees, transportation and lodging. Locals find employment as guides and outfitters.
The hot topics in recent years have centered on mineral extraction and the disturbance of herds from airplanes transporting hunters from outside local communities. Disturbances such as these are of greater concern since caribou numbers declined from almost 500,000 at the beginning of the century to just over 200,000 in 2016.
But Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists are cautiously optimistic about the overall health of the Western Arctic caribou herd, as data from the most recent aerial surveys indicate that more young caribou are surviving and fewer adults are dying. The biologists say results of the July 2017 photocensus survey are expected to be published soon, but it’s still too early to say what impact these changes will have overall.
Rick Van Nieuwenhuyse, president of Trilogy Metals, addressed the group on Thursday to discuss his company’s mining activities and the permitting process for an access road to the mine. The 211-mile road would lead from the Dalton Highway near Fairbanks through the foothills of the Brooks Mountain Range and across Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve to the Ambler Mining District.
The road, company officials say, is the next step in advancing exploration and gearing up to extract what has been characterized as one of the largest undeveloped copper-zinc mineral belts in the world. While the area has been explored for decades, lack of transportation infrastructure has long stymied mineral resource development.
Company officials and the Bureau of Land Management say the road is currently considered only for industrial use and not for public access.
Despite these assurances, members of the working group expressed concerns that the road would ultimately be open to the public and extended all the way up to the northern and westernmost parts of the region. This sparked a debate on whether the group should take a formal vote for or against the road, or ask for more information as the review process continues.
“It’s like the old Western movies with cowboys with guns and Indians with bow and arrow,” Cyrus Harris, a working group representative from Kotzebue, said. “We’re going to try to stop them, but the cowboys are going to win and that road will go through no matter what. We always lose whether we stand together or not. It will affect that whole area and go to all the villages. We’ll see a future that I hope doesn’t happen – but I told my kids the road will happen one day and it’ll connect all the way to Kotzebue.”
The majority of the population of Kotzebue, a city of about 3,000 people, is Alaska Native.
William Bernhardt, representing the Upper Kobuk River area, which sits nearest the proposed road, had a different take. He countered that his community shouldn’t suffer because people who don’t want the road don’t live in the region.
“l’d like to see life a little easier for us,” Bernhardt said. “It’s tough up there, hard to get fuel and expensive to get home goods in.”
Representatives from BLM stressed that no decision has yet been made on the road permit.
Tim Fullman, representing the conservationist groups, reminded members that they have an obligation to make their views heard. “We are charged by people we represent and all we can do is do our responsibility to inform that decision even if that decision seems inevitable,” Fullman said.
Ultimately, the working group voted to take no formal action for or against the road permit. Members agreed that there will be more opportunities during the scoping process to revisit the discussion and define a position.
BLM plans to continue scoping meetings and public hearings on the proposed road through 2018 with a draft Environmental Impact Statement released by March 2019 and a final EIS the following December. The National Park Service is also working on a separate environmental analysis of the project that will pass through 26 miles of park land.