A trek to save the caribou

By Katy Anderson

What would it take for you to follow thousands of caribou across barren, frozen tundra for five months?

A husband and wife team did it to raise awareness about the issues facing the caribou. Last week, their story came to campus at a film screening in Residence of Being Caribou. The film chronicles the journey of filmmaker Leanne Allison and wildlife biologist Karsten Heuer, as they trek 1,500 kilometres on foot to highlight the plight of the caribou. The situation concerns both American and Canadian experts.

Drilling in the arctic is part of the U.S. Congress’ budget bill this week. If the bill goes through it will violate a 1987 treaty between the U.S. and Canada, affecting wildlife and the way of life for the Alaskan first nations people, the Gwichin.

“The issue is that the [U.S.] government wants to drill for oil in the porcupine caribou’s calving grounds,” said Alaska Wilderness League national field director Erik DuMont.

The caribou need the coastal plains for three reasons: they eat grass to build up their fat for the journey back, the ocean breeze keeps the mosquitoes away and there are less predators. If the caribou leave these things–and they will–they will be much less successful in raising their calves, explained DuMont.

“Our own government scientists have estimated that drilling in their calving grounds would decrease the herd by 40 per cent,” said DuMont. “They wouldn’t be able to relocate to another suitable area. There just isn’t space for it, the coastal area is too small.”

Caribou are not the only form of wildlife that would suffer from drilling for oil on the coastal plains, explained Yukon’s only member of parliament, Larry Bagnell. There are many species of migrating birds and polar bears (also increasingly endangered) that den there. The dozen villages of people who harvest the caribou on their journey will also be affected.

“The Gwichin people can eat caribou one, two or three times a day, on occasion,” said Bagnell. “If the herd goes extinct it would basically be a cultural genocide of Gwichin people, who base their whole life around the caribou. They would be forced to migrate south, which would break up their community. It would bring an end to the equilibrium the Gwichin have shared with the caribou for thousands of years.”

The Gwichin would not be able to sustain their way of life without the caribou because of the remoteness of the villages. It would be too expensive for most Gwichin to bring up supplies, explained Bagnell. Not only is caribou a major staple of the Gwichin diet but they also use them for clothing and artwork.

“We can’t–in this increasingly complicated world–afford to cause any culture and their ideas to go extinct,” said Bagnell. “Every culture has some of the answers that we need to draw on–as we draw on all cultures–for the key to survival of us all.”

Check out beingcaribou.com for more info.

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