Canada Sees ANWR Drilling Threat to Border-Crossing Caribou

But Murkowski says oil development impact on wildlife has been limited

Canada opposes the U.S. proposal to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration, citing concerns over its impact on a caribou herd. (Courtesy Derek Ramsey/Wikimedia Commons)
Canada opposes the U.S. proposal to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration, citing concerns over its impact on a caribou herd. (Courtesy Derek Ramsey/Wikimedia Commons)
Posted November 2, 2017 at 5:00am

The Canadian government cares about its people — and its caribou. And to protect the latter, the government has come out against the U.S. proposal to open a portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration, citing the feared impact on a caribou herd that migrates across the shared border.

Canada’s opposition, expressed by its embassy in an email to Roll Call, puts the United States’ neighbor on the side of Democrats and environmental groups, both of whom are looking to scuttle Republican attempts to open the refuge using budget reconciliation — a procedural maneuver that enables legislation to pass with only a simple majority in the Senate.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing on ANWR drilling Thursday, and sure to be a part of the discussion is the effect that oil activities, and their related infrastructure projects, could have on wildlife in the refuge.

When ANWR was designated as a wildlife reserve in 1980, Congress allowed for a future congressional vote to permit energy exploration in a 1.5-million-acre section, known as the “1002 area,” of the 19-million-acre refuge near the Arctic coast.

Republicans on the Energy panel will argue that responsible development can go forward in concert with environmental protections. But so far, Canadians remain skeptical.

“Canada opposes opening the Arctic Refuge and the 1002 area to resource development and supports continued conservation of the Porcupine Caribou herd’s habitat,” Canadian Embassy spokesperson Christine Constantin said in the email. “We have long advocated for the permanent protection of the Arctic Refuge and have made strides to protect this herd through the establishment of important habitat areas, including two national parks, Ivvavik and Vuntut.”

Opening the area to drilling activities, according to the embassy, may not be in the spirit of a 1987 agreement between the United States and Canada to conserve the Porcupine Caribou herd and its habitat, which the two countries deemed “a unique and irreplaceable natural resource of great value which each generation should maintain and make use of so as to conserve them for future generations.”

‘Antlered gypsies’

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service describes the caribou herd “like antlered gypsies” because the “barren ground caribou are always on the move,” according to the agency’s website. That range includes the Yukon and Northwest Territories in Canada as well as much of ANWR and its coastal plain.

Totaling approximately 200,000, the Porcupine herd, named for one of the rivers it crosses during its migration, usually moves to ANWR’s coastal plain to give birth to around 40,000 calves each year.

“I think special places that are recognized by the international community should be preserved, and I appreciate their support for that,” Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, the top Democrat on the committee, told Roll Call in response to Canada’s opposition.

But for Alaska and its Energy and Natural Resources chairwoman, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, oil development activities can successfully coexist with limited impacts to wildlife — as shown by the state’s nearly 40-year foray into oil drilling.

“Keep in mind, the caribou that are up in the region, we have seen that herd grow dramatically since we began producing oil in the ’70s,” the Alaska Republican told reporters. “Back in the ’70s, we were looking at a herd over 5,000, now we are about 22,000. That number comes and goes, but in fairness, we have not seen a reduction in the numbers of the caribou. If anything, they have increased dramatically, and I think people will hear that.”

Those numbers align with the Central Arctic herd, which ranges in areas that surround Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay oil production zone and does not usually cross into Canada as part of its migration path. The herd does, however, spend parts of the year in the coastal plain.

“It’s not just caribou; we have a care and concern of all the wildlife up north,” Murkowski said. “We have been demonstrating that again for the over 40 years we have been engaged in production up north.”

Murkowski also noted that Canada itself has engaged in development activities around the border that could have affected the caribou herd, including the construction of Dempster Highway in the Yukon Territory. Alaska did not object, the senator said, because it occurred on the Canadian side of the border and it appears not to have affected the caribou.

“We are paying attention, and certainly expect Canada is paying attention too,” Murkowski said.

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