As the Trump administration edges closer to opening up oil and gas drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Gwich’in communities are taking action.
On August 17, the US Bureau of Land Management issued a Record of Decision outlining plans allowing the government to lease parts of the refuge to oil and gas companies for exploration and drilling.
The process will begin with a call for nominations to identify areas for lease, alongside a public comment period.
The response to that decision from Gwich’in and other Indigenous communities, and their allies, has been swift.
Within a day, the Gwich’in Tribal Council based in Inuvik and the Vuntut Gwich’in First Nation (VGFN) in Old Crow had issued a joint statement arguing that the decision was “a result of a rushed and inadequate environmental review process.”
The two governments plan to use the public comment period to oppose the decision and highlight how drilling in the refuge is, in their view, “not sustainable and threatens the human rights of the Gwich’in.”
Vuntut Gwich’in Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm told Cabin Radio that while the two groups were expecting this decision, the process was “troubling.”
Scientists working on the file were fired, Tizya-Tramm claimed, timelines were shortened, and Gwich’in communities were shut out of consultations.
US looks to jobs, energy independence
Tizya-Tramm argues the US government is pursing the “most destructive option” of those available for drilling, with the fewest protections.
“We’ve watched a Trump administration that’s really acting alone in the sense that they have no regard for past stipulations,” he said.
“So, for this to culminate in a record of decision that chooses the most destructive path for an extremely fragile and integral area, it just kind-of speaks to how out of touch this administration is.”
Republicans have long coveted the area for its potential oil and gas reserves. Since taking office in 2017, President Donald Trump has said an increase in Arctic drilling could the grow domestic fossil fuel markets and establish “energy dominance” for the US.
Last week, US interior secretary David Bernhardt said making the refuge’s coastal plain available for drilling “marks a new chapter in American energy independence” and could “create thousands of new jobs.”
Congress in 2017 already ordered two sales of leases in the refuge to go ahead by 2024. The latest plan goes further, though, in opening up a larger region.
Lisa Murkowski, Alaska’s senior Republican senator, said: “This is a capstone moment in our decades-long push to allow for the responsible development of a small part of Alaska’s 1002 Area,” referring to the name by which a section of the refuge’s coastal plain is known.
“Through this program, we will build on our already-strong record of an increasingly minimal footprint for responsible resource development.”
‘Not like other herds’
The refuge, 30,500 square miles stretched along the Alaska-Yukon border, has been under US federal protection since 1960 after decades of campaigning on the part of environmentalists and Indigenous communities. It’s home to polar bears, wolves, and dozens of species of birds.
It also serves as the calving grounds for caribou in Canada’s Arctic.
Joe Tetlichi is the chair of the Porcupine Caribou Management Board, which tracks and monitors the well-being of the specific caribou herd.
He said the refuge is crucial to the Porcupine caribou’s survival.
“They’re not like other herds where they can re-distribute – the Porcupine caribou can’t,” he said. “When there’s calving in the first week in July or the first week in June, that’s very important to them.”
The grounds have a lot to offer new calves and caribou parents, Tetlichi argues. The breeze from the nearby Arctic Ocean keeps the insects away, and cotton grass is nutritious for the animals to eat.
Anything that might affect that could greatly impact the survival of the herd, Tetlichi said, adding the survival margin for calves is already pretty slim.
“The greatest impact from development on Porcupine caribou will occur during post-calving period, when cows and calves are most vulnerable,” he said. “Calf survival will likely decrease as a result of any level of proposed development.”
If the caribou are affected, Tetlichi said, then the peoples who rely on them will be too. The herds have sustained Gwich’in, Inuit, and other Indigenous peoples in the Arctic for thousands of years.
‘A sacred relationship’
Bobbi Jo Greenland-Morgan is the Grand Chief of the Gwich’in Tribal Council. She said the Gwich’in relationship with the caribou is sacred.
“It’s more than just the food source,” she said. “It’s our connection to the land, our cultural and spiritual identity. It’s all intertwined and really stems down to that caribou.”
Historically, Gwich’in communities followed the migration of the caribou herds throughout the year to stay close to a food source. Many communities were eventually settled and established along those migration routes.
Bernadette Demientieff, director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, echoed Greenland-Morgan.
“Our Creation story has told us that there was time that we were able to communicate with the caribou, and we made a vow, we made a pact to take care of each other,” she said.
She added that being able to hunt the animal and live off the land plays an important role in food security within northern communities, where imported food prices can be incredibly high.
And it’s not just Gwich’in who are affected or a part of the fight, Demientieff said. Inuvialuit communities in the NWT rely on the caribou, as do Inupiat communities in Alaska.
“The Gwich’in, we lead the fight, but it’s not just about us,” Demientieff said. “We speak for many, many different tribes throughout Alaska and Canada who depend on this caribou herd for their food security.”
Not giving up
The Gwich’in have been fighting to protect the caribou for decades, Greenland-Morgan said. She referred to a Gwich’in Annual Gathering in 1988 – the first in 150 years – where Elders from communities across Alaska, the Yukon, and the NWT spoke about the animal’s importance to Gwich’in ways of life.
“The Elders took a lot of leadership… that was the main topic that they wanted to talk about, what [would happen] to the caribou by proposed exploration and development in their calving ground,” she said.
“Following that gathering, it was very clear direction from the Elders that the Gwich’in are to stand united and work, and work, and work until we see permanent protection of that calving ground.”
Since then, Gwich’in communities, organizations, and individuals have been lobbying to protect the caribou and keep development out of the refuge. Earlier in 2020, six major banks in the US announced they would no longer fund drilling in the area after the Gwich’in Steering Committee and environmental groups condemned their actions.
On Monday, the Gwich’in Steering Committee, Vuntut Gwich’in First Nation, and 11 other groups filed a lawsuit against the Bureau of Land Management, stating that the leasing program is “illegal.”
Tizya-Tramm and Greenland-Morgan say giving up is not an option.
“As Indigenous peoples, we’re not alarmists,” Tizya-Tramm said. “We understand economics and we understand development, but we also understand our time-immemorial relationship with the environment and with the animals.
“We raise this red flag as frontline peoples who are experiencing this.
“It’s not too late. We can stand up together, as we have seen from our [forebearers], for exactly that exercise of our independence and our voice and our democracy.”