Couple Measure Caribou's Sensitivity to Development

HUSBAND-AND-WIFE adventurers Karsten Heuer and Leanne Allison set off from the remote village of Old Crow, Yukon, last April on a bold mission.

Couple Measure Caribou's Sensitivity to Development

HUSBAND-AND-WIFE adventurers Karsten Heuer and Leanne Allison set off from the remote village of Old Crow, Yukon, last April on a bold mission. Over the next five months, the couple followed the annual migration of the 123,000-strong Porcupine CARIBOU herd from its winter range in central Yukon to its spring calving grounds on Alaska's coastal plain - and back again. The journey covered more than 1,500 km, as the crow flies, across three mountain ranges and 15 major rivers, and through conditions ranging from blinding ground blizzards to the bug-infested heat of an Arctic summer. Through it all, Heuer, 35, and Allison, 34, exercised little control over the expedition's pace or path. "So much depended on the caribou," says Heuer. "The migration route and timing varies from year to year, so we had to be completely flexible. We were literally being pulled across this wild landscape by these animals."

For Heuer, a wildlife biologist and part-time national park warden, and Allison, a freelance filmmaker, this was more than just a chance to indulge their shared passion for outdoor pursuits and the Far North. The trip was designed to raise awareness of, and opposition to, the latest push to start drilling for oil and gas in a portion of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which includes the caribou's calving grounds. As his father did in the late 1980s, President George W. Bush is proposing to allow drilling along the oil-rich coastal plain as part of an omnibus energy bill, now before the U.S. Congress. Proponents of development, including the Alaskan government and spokesmen for that state's 8,500 Inupiat Eskimo people, argue that oil exploration and caribou can coexist. They point to the experience of Alaska's Central Arctic caribou herd, which has grown from 5,000 animals to almost 20,000 since the Prudhoe Bay oil fields, west of the wildlife refuge, came on stream in the late 1960s.

On the other side are most U.S. Democrats, the Canadian government, several major environmental groups and the 7,000 Gwich'in First Nation of Alaska, Yukon and the Northwest Territories. Exposing the Porcupine calving grounds to oil and gas drilling, they maintain, would devastate the herd and cause hardship to the Aboriginal hunters who depend on it.

Heuer and Allison are firmly in the second camp. They point out that the Central Arctic herd has, in fact, been displaced by resource development, but the animals have plenty of alternative calving grounds along the broad coastal tundra of western Alaska. By contrast, the birthing area favoured by the Porcupine caribou for at least the past 27,000 years is a narrow strip of land squeezed in between the Brooks mountain range and the Beaufort Sea. "There is simply nowhere else for them to go," says Heuer. "And as our experience shows, there are some very good reasons why they have been coming to the same spot for so long."

Within days of joining the migration, the couple found themselves surrounded by thousands of caribou streaming northwestward. Heuer and Allison, travelling for the first six weeks by ski and the rest by foot, plodded along, bearing heavy backpacks. They clocked, at best, 25 km per day, and often much less. "It was sort of a tortoise-and-hare scenario," quips Heuer, "and we were definitely the turtles."

Conditions in the early going ran the full gamut of an Arctic spring, from -30º C overnight to above freezing during the day, with fog, high winds and snow in between. "At one point, we were trapped in this storm," recalls Allison. "We huddled in our tent and it was blowing so hard, it felt like the snow crystals were coming right through the Gortex. Karsten went out to try to build a snow wall to protect us and, as he did, about 50 caribou wandered by." While the humans cowered from the elements, it was just another day for the animals.

At the end of May, six weeks of almost constant motion came to an abrupt halt as they arrived at the calving grounds. Biologists say you can set your clock by the Porcupine caribou: between June 1 and June 10 they give birth, no matter where they are. But their preferred spot, and the one that ensures the lowest rates of infant mortality, is this slip of land hugging the Arctic Ocean. As they quietly observed the animals for the next 10 days, Heuer and Allison quickly appreciated their logic. For one, the energy-depleted females were able to feast on the area's wet grasses, lichens and willow shrubs, a protein-rich diet that ensured good milk for the calves' crucial first meals. For another, while mosquitoes and biting flies had surfaced inland, here, due to the cool winds wafting off the ocean, the caribou weren't bothered by insects. Finally, the bears, eagles and wolves that Heuer and Allison had encountered almost daily during the previous weeks seemed to have vanished, affording the caribou a predator-free paradise in which to give birth.

Heuer and Allison hunkered down in their tent during calving, speaking to each other in a whisper. If they went outside, the skittish caribou ran away. "That shows just how sensitive they are at this time," says Allison. "If there were oil and gas drilling, pipelines and airstrips, they would be forced to take their calves back into the foothills, where they'd have to deal with the bugs, the predators and the lack of forage."

As abruptly as it began, the calving period ended. The caribou banded together in groups as large as 3,000 animals and raced for higher ground in a sometimes futile attempt to escape the mounting insect hordes. Heuer and Allison struggled to keep up, often sleeping only two or three hours at a stretch and walking through the long, sun-filled nights. "We had to put aside all of our natural rhythms to match the animals'," says Allison. "These were some really magical times. The caribou didn't seem to mind us being along at all."

By August, the herd finally started to fatten up and their coats thickened. Ironically, it was just at this point that Heuer and Allison's bodies gave out. Hundreds of meals of dried foods, perpetual movement and the extremes of Arctic weather had taken their toll. Each of them had lost about 25 pounds. "We are gripped all night by hunger," Heuer wrote in his journal, "and I wake in the morning grasping at arms, legs and torso that, after having grown muscular, are now too thin to be my own."

Originally, the couple intended to stay with the caribou for the full seven-month migration, back to the herd's winter range in central Yukon. But in early September, they cut their trek short by two months, mainly because they had the opportunity to fly to Washington to be part of an international lobbying campaign. They found the exercise frustrating, as they tried to distill the emotions of an intense five months on the trail into a five-minute pitch to congressional aides or, occasionally, a real live politician.

For now, the lobbying has been successful. Congress recently voted to excise the Bush proposal to allow Arctic drilling from the omnibus energy bill. Still, opponents long ago learned they must remain vigilant. Allison and Heuer intend to do their part; she is currently editing 48 hours of footage of their expedition into a one-hour documentary for the National Film Board, while he is working on a book to be published next year by McClelland & Stewart. "The Porcupine caribou have tested every square inch of their vast range and the place evolution has chosen for their calves remains a target for oil and gas development," says Heuer. "We can't let that happen."

See also ENVIRONMENT.

Maclean's January 12, 2004