Being Human, Being Caribou and Being Wild

Calving Grounds

The Wilderness Act was signed into law in 1964 by Lyndon B. Johnson. Therefore, this year we celebrated the 50th anniversary of a law which created the National Wilderness Preservation System and recognized wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” The Act further defined wilderness as “an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions.” One of our authors, Shauna Potocky wrote about the history of The Wilderness Act recently, Celebrating Wilderness: The 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act.

During the winter holiday season, my attention is drawn to a beast that receives considerable protection under The Wilderness Act in some, but not all, of its range. Reindeer, caribou, or Rangifer tarandus….by any of these names is still the same magical, hearty and wondrously unique species of cervid. It is the type of animal whose existence gratifies the primal and more complicated regions of my brain as only pack animals and other beasts of burden do. The wild of this species inhabit the last undeveloped frontiers of this small planet and serve as an important food source for many tribal communities, while the domesticated of this species are vital pack animals. If you view this as I do, you realize the delicately intertwined relationship between humans and caribou can help to insure the survival of both.

Domesticated caribou are known as reindeer. Caribou are well designed for Arctic conditions with a double-layered coat and large, concave hooves that function as snowshoes because they spread widely to provide support in tundra and also serve as paddles while swimming.  They are the only deer species in which both the male (bull) and female (cow) grow antlers, though the bulls possess much larger, massive, antlers than females.  Cows shed their antlers later in the season than bulls, in theory so they still have them for protecting calves.  Only cows still have antlers as late as December. (So all of Santa’s reindeer are probably cows.)

Line of Caribou bulls swimming. Photo courtesy of National Park Service

Line of Caribou swimming.
Photo courtesy of National Park Service

The world population of caribou is five million, and approximately 950,000 wild caribou live in Alaska.  Caribou range includes North America, Greenland and Northern Europe to Northern Asia in habitats including the Arctic tundra and adjacent boreal forest.  The Porcupine Caribou Herd, which is distributed in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Yukon and the Northwest territories of Alaska, has a range largely protected under The Wilderness Act.

Many other animals are protected as well. The coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the northernmost destination of millions of birds from more than 130 species and comprises the most important onshore denning habitat for the entire Beaufort Sea polar bear population.  Musk oxen, wolverines, foxes, golden eagles, and snowy owls gather on the coastal plain to hunt and den every year.

In 1980, President Carter signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act which doubled the size of the Arctic Range and renamed it the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The entire refuge was designated as wilderness with one key exception: Section 1002 of the Act, a last minute compromise to ensure the bill passed, outlined additional research that would be needed before Congress could designate the area as wilderness. The “1002 lands” as this 1.5 million acre parcel is known, formed the most important part of the herd’s habitat and the core of their calving grounds, but were also suspected of harboring vast reserves of oil. In 1984, the Canadian government, in cooperation with the Inuvialuit people, protected their portion of the caribou calving grounds by establishing Ivvavik National Park adjacent to the Arctic Refuge. Vuntut National Park, also in the Yukon, was created a few years later in co-operation with the Vuntut Gwich’in First Nation, thereby protecting vital spring, summer and fall habitat for the herd on the Canadian side.

In April 2003, two adventurers followed the Porcupine Caribou migration. They traveled on foot with the 123,000-member herd from wintering to calving grounds in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and back again, traveling for a total of five months. When they completed the journey, they shared their story and findings with everyone who would listen in Washington D.C.  Their story is remarkable, but not nearly as remarkable as that of the Porcupine Caribou herd. Their documentary is available to watch online and I have embedded it below. After you watch it, I think you will agree that the calving grounds deserve designation as a wild place, now and forever, and should always be protected from oil drilling.

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