Restless Nomads in a Land of Controversy

On the coastal plain of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the author finds himself in the midst of the annual caribou migration

  • Tom Walker
  • Aug 01, 2001
AN ILL-DEFINED RUMBLING roused me from the thick, gray fog of fatigued sleep. I had been up until 4:30 am, photographing an arctic fox den illuminated by the midnight sun. It couldn't have been more than two hours since I'd crawled into my tent. I fought coming awake. It's only an airplane or something on the highway, I thought. But realizing that the nearest road was perhaps 180 miles away and no plane could make such a sound, I sat bolt upright, straining to listen.

There! Over the deep rumble, I heard clear, recognizable sounds: the grunting of countless caribou on the move. The Porcupine herd was approaching. Once dressed and outside my tent, I looked upriver toward the sound. Rolling over the ridge was a seething, densely packed herd, several thousand animals traveling slowly eastward in their great loop into Canada. The rumbling of the herd's passage, mingled with the calling of cows and calves, sounded only slightly less muted than the thundering sound effects of cattle stampedes in old western movies.

My camp, located within the contentious Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in remote northeast Alaska, was situated at the mouth of a north-flowing river and a quarter of a mile from the Beaufort Sea. During their annual 800-mile, circular journey, the caribou gather here on the treeless coastal plain in late spring and early summer to graze and avoid the worst of the clouds of mosquitoes and predators found further inland. I had flown here--to the place conservationists call the "Serengeti of the North"--to see and photograph just such a caribou concentration.

As I hurried up a nearby tussocky ridge to get a better view of the approaching herd and sweep of tundra north of the Brooks Range, the noise grew louder and more distinct. The grunting of cows and the bleating of calves mixed with the rumble of earth beneath their feet. Perhaps as many as 4,000 animals were packed into a tight, slow-moving mass. Only a few bulls were in the grouping, but their larger size and waving antlers set them apart from the cows and calves. Almost every female cow seemed to have a tiny, reddish calf at her heels.

A distinctive clicking sound also emanated from the herd. When a caribou walks, each step is accompanied by an audible click. Early explorers believed that the sound was caused by the animals' toes slapping together, but in reality it comes from the rubbing of ankle bones. The castanetlike clicking of thousands of these ankle bones accompanied the moving herd, along with a myriad of bleats and grunts.

With the calving season over, the Porcupine caribou herd--among the largest of the 12 main herds that range in Alaska--was sliding east into the Yukon Territory. It would soon come together in what biologists call a post-calving aggregation: a coalescing of cows and calves that occurs only in July. By this time, many of the herd's bulls, which had been trailing far behind, will have caught up and joined the females and their offspring. These aggregations may serve some little-understood social function or they may be a way of protecting habitat, since they do not occur yearly in the same exact area. To the west of the refuge, an estimated 200,000 or more caribou in the Western Arctic herd have been seen compressed into an area of less than eight square miles. The aggregations may only last a few days before breaking up. Nonetheless, these groupings are viewed as critical behaviors in the caribou's annual migrations.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge protects not only traditional Porcupine herd calving grounds, aggregation zones and migration routes, but also important coastal grazing areas. Here on the very edge of the arctic ice, caribou wander largely undisturbed by humans. Proposed oil development in the refuge, however, poses an unknown but potentially catastrophic threat to these summering grounds and to the future of the herd itself. Grizzlies (which need hundreds of square miles to eke out a living), land-denning polar bears and nesting migratory birds will also suffer.

Since my first visit here in 1979, I've tramped many miles through the area, floated its crystalline rivers and camped on tundra flats teeming with caribou and mosquitoes. Although the refuge's coastal plain lacks the stunning vistas of Mount McKinley far to the south, arctic light suffuses it with an austere, subtle beauty all its own.

On this visit, the weather inland in the foothills of the Brooks Range has been unseasonably warm--as high as 80 degrees F--and the mosquitoes have been horrendous. For humans, only copious amounts of repellent and a headnet make life bearable. The caribou have no such defenses.

During summer, hordes of insects torment the caribou. Legions of mosquitoes swarm around individuals in the herd. Warble flies attack their legs, darting in to deposit an egg on leg hair. The eggs then hatch, burrow under the skin and migrate to the animal's back. There they encapsulate and grow to maturity. Bot flies crawl into nostrils and deposit larva. Alaska biologist Jim Davis once counted 2,000 warble maggots in the back of a young caribou that died in late winter of malnutrition.

Calves especially suffer from insects at a time when they require energy for growth and development. The only escape from such torment is often panicked flight, stout winds or cold weather.

Stampedes separate cows from calves and some tortured caribou have even run off cliffs. A few years ago, hundreds of carcasses were found in the Western Arctic, dead from what biologists theorized was malnutrition caused in part by extreme insect harassment. Not surprisingly, the longest daily movements of caribou have been measured not during migration, but during bug season. Cool coastal winds provide some respite from the winged torment. Sometimes animals wade into the sea or trot out onto the Beaufort sea ice.

Some scientists believe that the tight, counter-clockwise milling of the herd I was watching is an insect-coping strategy. Sometimes groups of 20,000 animals or more pack tightly together in what reindeer herders call a tandara, a formation that provides some respite from the insects. In a densely packed herd, each individual caribou is exposed to fewer insects, enabling each to move and feed in a relatively normal manner.

NWF Takes Action

Keeping the Arctic Refuge Wild

To counteract oil-industry pressure for Congress to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, NWF has initiated a major effort to mobilize public opposition to proposals that threaten this im-portant habitat. "Until Congress completely protects the refuge from development, such threats will continue for a long time," says Scott Feierabend, NWF's regional vice president in Alaska. Learn how you can become involved.

The word caribou may be a corruption of the Mi'kmaq Indian word xalibu (GHAH-lee-boo), which means the "pawer" or "snow-shoveler." The name stems from the animals' habit of pawing the snow with their large hooves during winter and thrusting their muzzles into it to sniff for food. They are the only deer of the world's 36 species that have fully furred muzzles--just one of many physical characteristics that have evolved in caribou to help them survive the rigors of life in the Far North.

Their hollow hair, for example, acts as an insulating layer that conserves body heat in severe wind and cold. Unlike the circulatory systems of most other animals, the veins and arteries in the legs of caribou are in close contact. Blood returning up their long legs is heated with warm blood from the proximal arteries. The result is that the temperature in the legs stays at about 50 degrees F, while the body core remains nearly normal at 105 degrees F, even in the most frigid weather. And because open water is scarce during winter in northern latitudes, caribou are adapted to eating snow to obtain moisture.

Even in mild years, migration takes a physical toll on the animals. Injury and lameness are common, and there are always more miles to cover with no time for recuperation and recovery. Surprisingly, caribou are moderately long-lived, some surviving 12 to 15 years.

Slowly the tightly packed tandara that woke me moved east and crossed the river. By the time the caribou had crossed the half-mile-wide valley, one of the few large bulls in the group had circled inward to the center of the herd. Many animals from the core were no doubt now on the perimeter, where the bugs were probably more numerous.

Long after the caribou had passed from sight behind the rolling tundra ridges, I knew their location from the same low rumble that had announced their arrival. The herd seemed to be angling toward a breeze-swept peninsula that jutted into the still-frozen sea. Not wanting to disrupt them for just a few pictures, I went back to camp.

A few minutes later, I was unzipping my tent when I heard it: Stampede! The rumbling of thousands of hooves grew to a crescendo and then ever so quickly faded toward Canada.

Something had spooked the herd. Perhaps it was the grizzly and cub I had seen in that area, or maybe the wolf that I'd heard howling five days before, or maybe the herd erupted from the unrelenting insect assault. I had no idea. As the Eskimos say: "No one knows the way of the wind and the caribou."

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge What's at Stake in This Sacred Place?

During the contentious congressional debates that preceded passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Act in 1980, federal lawmakers argued for months over the fate of a 1.5-million-acre parcel of coastline in the northeast corner of the forty-ninth state. The problem: The coastal plain, a key component of the proposed 19-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, might contain potentially large reserves of oil. During the debates, many members of Congress voted in favor of safeguarding this stretch of coastline as "wilderness," a designation that would have protected it from road construction and most other development. Others, however, voted against such protection to keep the area open for possible oil drilling. Eventually, compromise language in the 1980 law included a provision--1002--that deleted the refuge's coastal plain from wilderness status (though it did require an affirmative action by Congress to open up the area to oil and gas development). The future of one of the nation's most pristine wild places has been a controversial issue for Americans ever since.

How much oil is thought to be available in the Arctic refuge depends upon whom you ask and whose research is cited. In truth, no one really knows. The results of the only test drilling conducted near the coastal plain in 1986 remains a secret, closely guarded by the oil companies and landowners. Other studies, mandated by Congress in 1987, concluded that there was only a one in five chance of finding economically recoverable quantities of oil beneath the coastal plain. More recent interpretations of the data suggest that these potential oil reserves could provide anywhere from three months to two years worth of the nation's oil needs--at best a reduction of only four percent of the country's dependence on foreign oil. And if Congress gives the green light to industry, several years will pass before the first oil would begin to flow out of the refuge.

"With only three percent of the world's known oil reserves, but a quarter of global consumption, America will never be able to drill its way to energy security in the Arctic nor anywhere else," observes NWF President Mark Van Putten. "The best approach to meeting our future energy needs is to fully develop new and existing alternative energy sources and to boost fuel conservation." Raising fuel economy standards for new motor vehicles, environmentalists argue, could save considerably more oil each year than the amount likely to be found in the refuge. "There are places in which carefully controlled oil exploration is appropriate and places where it simply is not," adds Van Putten. "The Arctic refuge clearly is one of those places where it is not appropriate." Conservationists view industrial intrusion as a direct threat to a premier wilderness and wildlife area, especially the caribou calving grounds on the coastal plain.

The Porcupine herd, named for the river where it winters, migrates each year around a Wyoming-sized piece of the Yukon Territory and Alaska, moving more than 800 miles to and from traditional calving grounds on the coastal plain. Gwich'in Athabascans have lived in scattered villages in the region for hundreds of generations. They depend on the herd for both subsistence and cultural identity.

"Long before the land became the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge--even before the Egyptian pyramids were built--our people named this region Vadzaih Googii Vi Dehk'it Gwanlii--the ‘Sacred Place Where Life Begins,'" says Faith Gemmill, a Gwich'in tribal spokesperson and volunteer member of the NWF board of directors. "The birthplace of the caribou is so sacred to us that we do not enter it even in times of famine--even though hunting would be easy for us there."

Pro-oil-development forces point to the recent expansion of the Central Arctic herd of caribou--from 20,000 to 27,000 since 1997--as an example of how wildlife and development can coexist. This is the only Alaska caribou herd that shares its range with Prudhoe Bay and Kuparuk, the two largest oil fields in North America. There, pipelines, facilities and roads crisscross and spread over 900 square miles.

Many biologists contend, however, that a string of mild winters may have more to do with the increase in the Central Arctic herd's numbers than any other factor. Cow caribou accompanied by newborn calves are "extremely sensitive to surface development and human activity," states a recent letter signed by more than a dozen caribou research biologists from various agencies and institutions. The letter goes on to state that "over time, calving caribou gradually withdrew from the general oil field area." Experts also note that the herd has split into two parts after the area was developed.

No one can say with any certainty how the Central Arctic herd would have fared without the oil fields. The adjacent Western Arctic caribou herd, for example, has increased in numbers from 75,000 to almost 500,000 since 1975. And conservationists point out that comparisons between the Central Arctic herd and the Porcupine herd are difficult to make. Numbering about 130,000 animals, the Porcupine is substantially larger, while its calving grounds are only about one-fifth the size of the area used by the Central herd. The bottom line: There is less room for the oil industry and caribou to coexist on the coastal plain.

Year-in and year-out, with few exceptions (usually weather-related), most of the calving and post-calving aggregations in the Arctic refuge occur in the 1002 area. Commonly one-half to three-quarters of the Porcupine herd's calves--totaling as many as 50,000 in some years--are born between the refuge's Katakturuk and Kongakut Rivers. One biologist who has studied arctic caribou for almost two decades asserts that late-term pregnant cows and those about to calve will not cross or approach roads. Even as little of an intrusion as a road, he believes, can negatively impact the very animals that matter most.

Sometimes lost in the debate over oil versus caribou is the issue of preserving one of the world's great, untouched wild areas. Already 95 percent of Alaska's Arctic coast is open to drilling, including the huge 23-million-acre National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. "The 1002 area is about 104 miles in length," calculates biologist John Schoen, "and if opened would leave only about 45 miles of refuge coastline protected."

The refuge's coastal plain currently supports the highest density of land-denning polar bears in America. Tundra swans, migrating snow geese, snowy owls, three species of loons and nearly 180 other species of birds from four continents spend at least part of the year in and around the refuge's coastal wetlands. The area is home to several species of freshwater fish, arctic foxes, musk-oxen, grizzlies, black bears and more than two dozen other kinds of land mammals. Bowhead whales and a variety of seal species patrol the waters offshore.

Noting that the refuge's coastal plain harbors such diversity in a relatively narrow area--just 15 to 40 miles wide--nearly 500 distinguished U.S. and Canadian scientists from a wide range of fields earlier this year urged President George W. Bush to support permanent protection of the area. "Five decades of biological study and scientific research," they pointed out, "have confirmed that the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge forms a vital component of the biological diversity of the refuge and merits the same kind of permanent safeguards and precautionary management as the rest of this original conservation unit."

The debate over the future of the Arctic refuge involves more than just arguments about the potential effects of drilling on wildlife habitat. It also raises questions about the way Americans perceive their wild heritage. Can we quantify the value of wilderness as it relates to the human spirit? Should we take a chance on sacrificing one of the largest, most complete natural ecosystems on the planet for, at best, a few years of oil?

"We need desperately to live amidst a balanced interplay of the goods of technology and the fruits of nature," wrote wildlife biologist Bob Weeden in an essay on frontier living. "Unless we can prove that a modern society can thrive in harmony with the land, the bits of wildness we salvage in Alaska will be nothing more than artifacts in the sad museum of mankind."

Alaska photojournalist Tom Walker has traveled to the lands that today make up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge several times during the past quarter-century to capture the area's wildlife on film. This text is adapted from his most recent book, Caribou: Wanderer of the Tundra (Graphic Arts Center Publishing Company, 2000;

Get Involved

Where We Work

More than one-third of U.S. fish and wildlife species are at risk of extinction in the coming decades. We're on the ground in seven regions across the country, collaborating with 52 state and territory affiliates to reverse the crisis and ensure wildlife thrive.

Learn More
Regional Centers and Affiliates