The Gwich’in... actively sought oil exploration on some of their own lands three times until it was determined that there is no oil under those Gwich’in lands.

The Caribou Con: In Search of ANWR Truth

As Congress once again contemplates the wisdom, necessity and consequences of oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), one of the most persistent arguments against it has been the alleged potential threat to the Porcupine Caribou herd, so-named after the Porcupine River, which is within the herd’s range. The most popular voice for that argument has come from the Gwich’in tribe, approximately 7,000 Indians who live in 15 remote villages near the Arctic Circle.

Here’s the spiel from Sarah James, a Gwich’in activist and spokesperson who largely personifies the tribe’s public relations and lobbying efforts:

"Gwich’in people call the Arctic Refuge Coastal Plain…the sacred place where life begins."

"We are the caribou people. It is our clothing, our story, our song, our dance and our food that is who we are. If you drill for oil here, you are drilling right into the heart of our existence."

"For thousands of generations, Gwich’in people have lived closest to this fragile birthplace."

"This is human rights vs. oil."

"Any industrial development will destroy the birthplace forever, and with it, the local Gwich’in people."

There is more, in poetry, song and the culture of a people whose 15 villages convened and passed a talking stick for each person to speak "when oil companies first threatened the caribou in 1988."

The Gwich’in story, as articulated by Sarah James, is compelling and powerful, pulling heartstrings and stirring emotions. Environmentalist groups have facilitated it and advanced it. A lot of folks, including Members of Congress, have bought it — lock, stock and (empty) barrel.

There is some truth in the Gwich’in advocacy, but not nearly enough to rise above its significant factual contradictions and omissions.


The Gwich’in tribe is not native to ANWR. The Gwich’in do not live in ANWR. Of the approximately 7,000 Gwich’in, 6,000 reside in Canada, only 1,000 in the U.S.

The Gwich’in do live within the overall range and along the migration routes of the Porcupine Caribou herd, but those routes are exceptionally fluid, nearly impossible to predict and predominantly based on climatic conditions and delineated into eight distinct annual life-cycle periods. Due to completely natural forces and reasons, there are years when the caribou do not venture near the "caribou people."

The Gwich’in did not always oppose oil exploration in the region. The Gwich’in, in fact, actively sought oil exploration on some of their own lands three times until it was determined that there is no oil under those Gwich’in lands. Undeterred, the Gwich’in then proposed leasing oil rights to all their lands. There were no takers.

Estimates of the size of the Porcupine Caribou herd vary, but approximately 123,000 seems to be the best current estimate. Despite all the speculation about the potential effects ANWR oil exploration might have on the herd, the greatest single, ever-present threat — their harsh natural habitat, including weather, food supply and predation — is almost never discussed beyond research papers. During a series of severe winters in the early 1990s, weather conditions alone depleted approximately 15 percent of the herd.

The second greatest existing threat to the Porcupine Caribou — the only human one — is the Gwich’in themselves. On the Canadian side of the border, approximately 3,000 Porcupine Caribou are killed each year by Gwich’in hunters. (That is not a criticism, just a fact.)

Any discussion of oil exploration in ANWR is misleading without an understanding of and perspective on that vast area. It is likely that meaningful opposition would have faded years ago were it not for the opportunistic exploitation of ignorance about a terrain and the conditions thereof that few people understand and fewer still will ever see.

In total, the land mass politically designated as ANWR is 19.6 million acres. Of that, 17.16 million acres are protected as refuge and wilderness, not to be touched, by law. The only region in which drilling is even proposed is in the Coastal Plain, 1.5 million acres at the northern tip of ANWR. That is the so-called 1002 area that was set aside by Congress in 1980 for oil and gas exploration, subject to environmental assessments and future authorizing legislation. Even so, only 2,000 acres would be explored, if approved by Congress. That is only one-hundredth of one percent (.0001) of the total land mass of ANWR, as well as a similar percentage of the total range of the Porcupine Caribou.

Given the comparatively tiny, isolated area of ANWR for which oil exploration is proposed, it is critical to understand that particular area as it pertains to the migratory patterns and needs of the Porcupine Caribou.

Arguably, the most sensitive areas for the Porcupine Caribou are its calving areas — where the herd is replenished during one of its eight life-cycle periods, which lasts only a few weeks. Those areas are not constant, varying year by year, but calving areas do include the ANWR Coastal Plain. At no other time of the year do the migratory paths of the Porcupine Caribou approach that area.

Since 1983, Porcupine Caribou calving-area data has been compiled by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The data is then transposed to yearly maps, which clearly show both high-density and overall calving areas.

Since 1983, not once — repeat, not once — has high-density calving taken place in the limited proposed drilling area. From 1983 through 1990, in 1992, 1995, 1996, 2000 and 2001, the Porcupine Caribou did not calve at or near the proposed drilling area at all. In 1991, 1993, 1994, 1997, 1998 and 1999, the proposed drilling area was at the western fringe of the calving area.

The last available map that delineates the overall high-density and general calving areas is for 2001. From 2002 through 2004, generally available calving area maps pinpoint only specific radio-tagged Porcupine Caribou cows. But again, in those years, there is no indication of significant calving anywhere near the proposed drilling area.

Porcupine Caribou calving occurs in the first two weeks of June each year, and the radio-collar migration maps for each life-cycle period are published on the Internet at, with a two-week lag time. Thus, as this is written, the calving area map for 2005 is not yet available, but the pre-calving map, which goes through May 27, shows the radio-collar cows so far east of the 1002 lands, into Canada, that it is safe to predict no calving will occur there this year.

Despite 23 consecutive years of specific Porcupine Caribou migration data that show no significant calving in the limited proposed oil exploration area, there is also no indication that the herd won’t shift calving patterns in the future. But what if they do?

Perhaps the best empirical evidence that oil drilling does not necessarily negatively impact the sustenance or development of caribou concerns the Central Arctic Caribou herd, which, not insignificantly, overlaps and intermingles with the Porcupine Caribou.

The Central Arctic herd calves in the Prudhoe Bay area where Alaskan oil exploration is significant. In the early 1970s, while oil exploration in that area was developing, the population of that herd was estimated at 5,000. The most recent population estimates put the size of that herd at roughly 32,000, a more than six-fold increase in the three decades that oil exploration has been intense.

"But this… But that…" argue some anti-exploration biologists. The most frequent argument is that high-density calving areas have shifted away from the oil facilities in that vicinity. Even accepting that as an absolute fact of cause and effect (which some do not), it just as soundly illustrates the reasonable adaptability of the caribou as it does negative implications. No element of the herd’s environment, natural or man-made, is static, including weather, food, predation and the possibility that the rapid growth of the herd has pushed it to range-carrying capacity. For now, however, the size of the herd and its biological health stand in stark contrast to the myriad worries ventured by opponents of exploration.

The opposition to exploration by some biologists is at least based on scientific discipline, rationally stated concerns and some information, regardless of contradictory conclusions by similarly credentialed peers.

Unfortunately, the mindset that dominates the most vocal opposition to oil exploration can be fairly characterized as "modern man bad/nature good," no matter how severely the nature of the Arctic treats its own. That opposition takes us back to the Gwich’in, strategically maneuvered into the frontlines of the battle.

For perspective, some history, apologetically oversimplified for the sake of brevity, is required.

The history of Alaska and the treatment of its native peoples are far from benign. Be that as it may, in 1971, Congress enacted the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA, much amended since) which granted eligible Alaska natives title to 44 million acres of "public land" and almost $1 billion in settlement of their land claims. The settlement also required the sharing among tribes of income from resource development, regardless of where that development takes place.

Virtually all of the native tribes accepted the settlement and formed for-profit corporations to manage their holdings, adjudicate claims and distribute assets. Whatever the feelings about the settlement or the conditions that led to it, most of the tribes have vastly improved their lives, sharing in the oil and gas revenues that largely propel Alaska’s economy.

The Alaskan Gwich’in, numbering approximately 1,000 today, refused to accept the settlement as structured. The tribe elected instead to retain full right and title to 1.8 million acres of land in its former reservation, foregoing their share of the cash, but also avoiding sharing with other Alaska natives proceeds from resource development on Gwich’in lands. Whether the original motivation was the belief that the 1.8 million acres contained valuable natural resources which the Gwich’in would unilaterally own and control or resulted from strong tribal cultural compulsions is not within the scope of this paper. Subsequent Gwich’in decisions and actions are.

Alaskan Gwich’in attitudes toward oil exploration have changed dramatically over the years. In 1970, the tribe leased land to Exxon to conduct seismic studies. When no quantity of oil was detected, the lease was cancelled. In the late 1970s, it is widely believed that Alaskan Gwich’in sought an oil exploration lease from British Petroleum, but no agreement was concluded.

On September 4, 1980, the Alaskan Gwich’in signed a $1.8 million contract with Rougeot Oil and Gas Corporation for development. No oil was found. Signing the termination of that lease, on March 8, 1984, along with other Gwich’in leaders, was none other than Sarah James, as a Gwich’in Council Member.

Only two weeks later, on March 21, 1984, the Alaskan Gwich’in issued a formal oil and gas exploration request for proposal, specifically offering drilling rights to the entire 1.8 million acres of Alaskan Gwich’in land. Signing that request, along with other Gwich’in leaders, was none other than Sarah James, on behalf of Arctic Village. There were no takers.

The Center for Individual Freedom has obtained a copy of the 1980 lease between the Gwich’in and Rougeot Oil and Gas Corporation. The 17-page document is detailed in the rights granted and the "industrial development" that would be allowed. Here’s an excerpt:

"…Lessor hereby grants to Lessee the exclusive right to explore for, develop, produce and market all oil and gas and other hydrocarbon substances and non-hydrocarbon substances produced in association therewith….Lessor hereby grants Lessee the continued right of ingress and egress on the Leased Premises for the purpose of exploring for, developing, producing, storing, treating, refining and transporting Granted Substances. Lessor hereby grants Lessee the right to conduct such operations on the Leased Premises as may be reasonably necessary, in Lessee’s judgment, to explore for, develop, produce, store, treat, refine and transport Granted Substances. The right of ingress and egress and the right to conduct operations shall include but not limited to geophysical operations, the drilling of wells, and the construction and use of roads, pipelines, railroads, canals, drilling pads, living quarters, airports, heliports, helipads, landing strips, tanks, water wells, disposal wells, injection wells, pits, electric and telephone lines, power stations, and other facilities to discover, produce, store, treat or transport Granted Substances…."

But what of the Porcupine Caribou herd, for which the Alaskan Gwich’in now profess such concern? Here’s the pertinent, single sentence: "Lessee shall pay particular attention to the Caribou herds during Caribou migration and shall consult with Lessor to avoid interference with the migration." That’s it. That’s the level of protection the "caribou people" thought necessary to provide the Caribou when oil exploration on their own lands seemed feasible. That was before potential exploration far away from Gwich’in lands became "human rights vs. oil," before the "oil companies first threatened the caribou in 1988."

In 1988, all 15 Gwich’in villages (seven Alaskan, eight Canadian) came together to oppose oil exploration in the region. In 2001, however, the Canadian Gwich’in Tribal Council, while continuing to oppose Alaskan oil exploration, formed Gwich’in Oilfield Services for the specific purpose of oil exploration on Canadian Gwich’in lands. At the time, Fred Carmichael, president of the Tribal Council, was quoted in the media as saying, "We will not be drilling on any caribou grazing area that [Gwich’in] people don’t want to drill on." The clear implication is that they will drill on grazing lands if they want to, while opposing all others doing the same.

As a result of not entering into the revenue sharing agreement of ANCSA and not finding natural resources under their land, the Gwich’in today live at subsistence levels, much as they have in the past. What they attempted to do, albeit unsuccessfully, as opposed to what they now say, regarding oil exploration and the Porcupine Caribou, is a matter of record. That is not easily spun away, although there have been few challenges to the public relations and lobbying effort mounted with significant coordination from environmentalist groups.

The debate over ANWR oil exploration should not be about the competing interests of Native Alaskans, but if it is, the Gwich’in, who are decidedly not "local" and have no claim to the land in question, stand in singular opposition among all Native Alaskan tribes. The Inupuit, who actually live in the Coastal Plain and own some of the land there, are just as firmly supportive of exploration, although they clearly have economic interests where the Gwich’in do not.

As national discussion continues, as Congress once again deliberates over ANWR oil exploration, it is critical to remember that this is not — as too frequently claimed by people who know better — about drilling in ANWR’s vast wilderness or refuge areas. It is not even about drilling in the 1.5 million acres of the Coastal Plain. It is about drilling, with state-of-the-art technology, in a specific area limited to 2,000 acres.

This is not about modern man vs. the Porcupine Caribou. If exploration is allowed, that herd will be even more closely watched than it is today, a test with huge stakes for all involved. The truth has been a victim of the debate. It may soon be up to reality to find it.

June 5, 2005
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