A big caribou herd that migrates across the Alaska-Canada border and uses the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as calving ground has received a pledge of protection from President Biden and Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. After a two-hour Zoom meeting on Tuesday, the two leaders later released a joint statement saying they had “agreed to work together to help safeguard the Porcupine Caribou Herd calving grounds that are invaluable to the Gwich’in and Inuvialiut peoples culture and subsistence.”
Biden reversed Trump’s decision on his first day in office, ordering a moratorium on oil and gas leasing in the Arctic Refuge. The Trump Administration had rushed through a lease sale – from which major oil companies opted out – on its last days in office.
The coastal plain has been subject to a 40-year struggle. It is vital to existence of the 100,000-plus animals of the Porcupine herd, but Alaska politicians have long sought to drill in the Refuge. A backdoor amendment to Republicans’ 2017 tax cut okayed drilling. Republican presidents have long boosted oil exploration as caribou-compatible. President George H.W. Bush talked about caribou rubbing against the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, saying they “have babies” beside it. Gale Norton, U.S. Interior Secretary under President George W. Bush, once described the coastal plain as “flat white nothingness.” Wildlife scientists and Gwich’in natives, who depend on the caribou for food, have strongly disagreed.
Trump blew off the drilling controversy. “I really don’t care about it, ” he said in a 2017 speech, “but when I heard that everybody wanted it – for 40 years they tried to get it approved — and I said, Make sure you don’t lose ANWR.”
Although the Canada-U.S. border has been closed since last March, the Porcupine herd undertakes a long circular migration through northeast Alaska and the Yukon. The herd’s Canadian habitat is protected in the Iwavik and Vuntat National Parks. (Broadcast news coverage has shied away from trying to pronounce the parks’ names.) Alaska politicians have, at times, railed against the indigenous peoples who oppose oil drilling. The late Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, once referred to the Gwich’ins of Arctic Village as “Canadian Indians who live in Alaska.”
The Gwiich’ins cheered the Biden-Trudeau statement. “’Hai choo’ to Prime Minister Trudeau and President Biden for making protection of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge part of a renewed U.S.-Canada Partnership,” Vuntiat Gwich’in First Nation Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm said in a statement.