Wanda Pascal takes Porcupine caribou protection fight to Washington

Last modified: May 22, 2022 at 11:25am


Fort McPherson’s Chief Wanda Pascal has been advocating for the protection of the Porcupine caribou herd for more than 20 years.

Now, in the last month of her second and final term as Chief of the Teetl’it Gwich’in First Nation, she finally had the chance to take that fight to the capital of the United States: Washington, DC.

Since Monday, a delegation of Gwich’in Elders, chiefs, leaders and youth – from the Northwest Territories, Yukon and Alaska – has been meeting with senior policymakers and senators to make the case for protection of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from natural resource development.  

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The refuge is home to the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd, and so is considered crucial to the herd’s survival.

“In order to protect the caribou, we have to protect the land, water and air, too,” Chief Pascal told Cabin Radio.

“I’m telling them about how I grew up on the land, how I was taught to learn to work with caribou, and how caribou is our main source of food.”

Barren-ground caribou. Alexandre Paiement/WWF-Canada

Not safe yet

While in office, former US president Donald Trump took significant steps toward opening the refuge’s coastal plain to oil and gas drilling.

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Upon inauguration, President Joe Biden suspended oil and gas development in the refuge, delaying immediate drilling in the federally protected area.

While Gwich’in defenders celebrated this as a victory, Pascal said the long-term threat of drilling will remain until permanent protection is achieved.

“This is a fight that’s going to be ongoing, forever, because we have different leadership coming in all the time,” Pascal said.

The Porcupine caribou have sustained Gwich’in, Inuit, and other Indigenous peoples in the Arctic for thousands of years.

Natural resource development in caribou calving grounds would have devastating impacts on the herd, defenders say, at a crucial point in the animals’ reproduction cycle.

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Threats to the health of the caribou population are seen as threats to communities that depend on their continued survival.

Pascal said she found US senators quite supportive this week.

Delegates met with California Congressman Jared Huffman, who sits on various environment and climate steering committees; Brenda Mallory, a senior environmental policy advisor to President Biden; and Alaska’s senior Republican senator, Lisa Murkowski, who has previously been supportive of resource development in the refuge.

“They’re really on our side. They don’t want drilling in the Arctic,” Pascal said.

Pascal had been invited to join the Gwich’in Steering Committee on previous trips to Washington but was unable to attend until now.

“I have one more month in my term as chief, so I thought I’d end my term with coming down and doing the work I’ve wanted to do for over 20 years,” she said.

Fort McPherson Chief Wanda Pascal, right, and Shenise Vittrekwa stand in front of the Capitol Building in Washington. Photo: Wanda Pascal

Next generation of leaders

Pascal invited Shenise Vittrekwa, 19, to join her.  

“It’s so important for the youth to understand where we come from and what we do as leaders, and continue our experience to lead future generations,” Pascal said.  

Vittrekwa grew up in a family dedicated to the protection of the Porcupine herd.

“It’s been important my entire life … My mom took part in such activities, and my grandfather took part in such activities, speaking towards keeping our way of life safe,” she said.

In Fort McPherson, Vittrekwa said, a passion for protecting the caribou is not unique to her family.

“We all eat the caribou. We all we grew up learning about it, we grew up learning the different ways to keep it sacred,” she said.

“I’m a part of this so, some day, I might have to fight for what I believe in. It’s better to learn now than down the line.”