In the mid-1970s, a young lawyer named Ian Waddell took a helicopter ride across the Crow Flats, in northern Yukon. He was accompanying Justice Thomas Berger on his visits to community after community — the so-called Berger Inquiry — to gain their input into a proposed gas pipeline from the Beaufort Sea to Alberta.
When they landed, Berger turned to him and, as Waddell recounts it, said, “You know, Ian, do you realize the magnificence of what we saw yesterday? It’s the last of North America — the eighth wonder of the world.”
That landscape the judge so admired is home to the Porcupine caribou herd, around 200,000 strong, which roam on the world’s longest land-mammal migration between Alaska, Yukon and the Northwest Territories. On the Canadian side of the border, two national parks, Ivvavik and Vuntut, protect much of the herd’s habitat.
But on the Alaska side of the border, the land and the herd that depends upon it have come under threat from oil and gas drilling after President Trump opened up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in his recent tax bill.
Caribou, like many large mammals, require huge tracts of relatively undisturbed land to thrive. The routes of migratory herds can be imperiled by development, such as pipelines or roads, that divides the landscape or gives easier access to predators. The area that could be opened to drilling is the Porcupine herd’s calving grounds, rich territory where the animals migrate each year to give birth.
It’s also the site of another kind of riches: the so-called “1002 area,” a potentially lucrative patch of land near Prudhoe Bay. It could contain more than six per cent of the total recoverable oil in the entire United States, at about 7.7 billion barrels.
Trump made the controversial decision to undo decades of conservation in the region, apparently, on a whim.
“I really didn’t care about it,” Trump told a congressional Republican retreat in early February. “And then when I heard that everybody wanted it, for 40 years they’ve been trying to get it approved, I said, ‘Make sure you don’t lose ANWR.’”
There may be something else Trump doesn’t know much about, though, and it could put the brakes on drilling in the refuge: a treaty, signed between the governments of Brian Mulroney and Ronald Reagan in 1987.
The treaty requires that the governments “take appropriate action to conserve the Porcupine Caribou Herd and its habitat,” including considering effects of activities (like, for instance, drilling), avoiding disrupting migration and considering cumulative effects on the landscape.
After Waddell’s time in the north with Berger, he moved on to politics, serving as energy critic for the federal NDP and later as B.C. environment minister. But that experience never left him, and he recently revived the treaty in an article for The Hill Times.
“Canada should now argue that the treaty provides us the right to be consulted before a drilling permit is issued in ANWR,” he wrote.
In an interview with DeSmog Canada, he explained, “If we’ve got a treaty with the United States, we could press that treaty — use that treaty — to raise a little hell.”
A small member of the large porcupine caribou herd. Photo: Peter Mather
NDP, Greens take on Alaskan drilling in House of Commons
Elizabeth May has had her eyes on the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge for decades, since she was a senior policy advisor to Progressive Conservative environment minister Thomas McMillan, and later as the executive director of the Sierra Club.
Now, as head of the federal Green Party, May is the only MP to have brought the issue up in the House of Commons.
“It’s been appalling to see Donald Trump as president for many, many reasons, but this is one of those things that he might do that represents irreparable harm,” she says.
Even under Stephen Harper’s notoriously pro-oil government, Canada remained resolute against drilling in the refuge.
New Democrat MP Richard Cannings says he plans to raise the issue in the House of Commons if the drilling plan goes ahead.
“This is what this treaty was drawn up for — this kind of situation,” he said, noting that the Liberals are under pressure to protect caribou and that this “might be an easy win for them,” to make some progress on protecting one of the last intact herds.
Gwich’in sounding the alarm
Its habitat is a place Cannings, like Waddell, is familiar with from time spent on the land in his former life as an ecologist. As was the case for Waddell, the northern Yukon left an impression that he carried with him to Ottawa.
“I think that Canada should stand up for the Porcupine caribou herd, for the First Nations that have relied on that herd over the millennia, because our whole ecosystem up there is related.”
The Gwich’in have been sounding the alarm on drilling in the refuge since Trump’s election.
“The Gwich'in call this area ‘Iizhik Gwats'an Gwandaii Goodlit,’ the Sacred Place Where Life Begins,” Vuntut Gwich’in Councillor Dana Tizya-Tramm told DeSmog Canada in November, a year after Trump’s victory.
“It is a keystone in the ecosystems of the Arctic, and the heart that beats outside of the Gwich'in chest.”
Tizya-Tramm expressed horror at the idea of degrading the habitat the caribou depend on, emphasizing the interconnected and fragile nature of the coastal plain, which has been described as the Serengeti of North America.
Cannings says the Gwich’in would be consulted and involved in negotiations with the U.S. over the treaty.
Image: Porcupine caribou herd. Photo: Peter Mather