By ZACHARY COILE
San Francisco Chronicle
August 31, 2005
But will they keep coming when the oil rigs arrive?
Across the rushing water of the glacier-fed Kongakut River, still partly coated in ice, the caribou lift their heads and take a momentary break from feeding on a hillside of golden sedges.
They are all bulls, 16 tan and cream-colored males with large antlers still covered in chocolate-tinted velvet. They start to move, but slowly. They are following tracks in the tundra carved weeks earlier by caribou cows that began arriving by the hundreds in late May when the snow was still knee-deep in places.
Twenty miles north, the river flows out onto the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge's coastal plain, a flat and boggy landscape of permafrost and river deltas on the northern tip of Alaska that has become the most controversial terrain in American politics. After a quarter-century battle between environmentalists and oil interests, the Republican-led Congress is poised to approve a budget bill as soon as September that would open 2,300 square miles of the refuge's coastal plain to oil drilling. U.S. geologists believe the area contains one of the America's largest untapped oil fields, which supporters of drilling say could lessen reliance on foreign oil.
With oil prices soaring and worldwide demand growing, the urge to drill in the refuge has accelerated, but other forces are just as intense, particularly the cash-strapped state of Alaska's need for the money that would flow along with the oil.
On the ground, however, it becomes clear why the refuge has been a top priority for environmentalists for so long, why the battle in Washington has been fought so hard. Here above the Arctic Circle, in an untouched vastness the size of South Carolina, lies one of the last truly wild places in North America. It is a land so large and open that the caribou, 123,000 strong, migrate up to 3,000 miles each year undisturbed except by natural predators and Native American hunters.
The amount of oil that could be gained, environmentalists say, isn't worth the loss of wilderness.
"This is one of the last places on earth where you can see large mammal migrations like this," said Michael Engelhard, an author and wilderness guide, who had just watched a group of nearly 1,000 caribou splash across the Kongakut while he rafted down the river.
"It looked like what the herds of bison must have looked like 200 years ago."
In the long debate over drilling, the caribou, known as the Porcupine herd, have become the symbol for the potential environmental loss. The coastal plain, one of the last areas of Alaska's coastline on the Arctic Ocean still off-limits to drilling, is the traditional calving ground of the herd.
Advocates of drilling, including President Bush, say the plain can be developed without harming the herd. Wilderness enthusiasts and many biologists say the construction of oil wells and pipelines on the plain threatens one of the most epic migrations of animals anywhere in the world.
From pilot Kirk Sweetsir's Cessna, 500 feet above the Aichilik River, the caribou look like armies of ants, marching in tidy rows along icy river banks toward the Beaufort Sea. It's late June, and the first large groups of the Porcupine herd are fanning out across the thawing tundra and wetlands of the coastal plain.
The refuge is so remote that only about 1,000 visitors come to camp and raft each year. As a result, it has remained wild, which was gruesomely demonstrated last month when a grizzly bear attacked and killed a couple from Anchorage at their campsite along the Hulahula River.
President Dwight Eisenhower created the refuge in 1960, and President Jimmy Carter signed a law in 1980 doubling its size to 19 million acres and designating most of it as wilderness. But lawmakers, who were heavily lobbied by oil companies and worried about a repeat of the 1973 oil embargo, left the 1.5 million-acre coastal plain as a study area - a legal gray area that would allow it to be drilled or set aside as wilderness in the future.
The coastal plain covers less than 10 percent of the refuge, but biologically it's the richest part because the remaining 90 percent is largely covered by the steeply sloped snowcapped mountains of the Brooks Range.
In winter, the coastal plain is a desolate place blanketed in thick sheets of snow and ice, with gusty winds and temperatures that can drop to 80 degrees below zero. The sun does not rise for 56 straight days. Even the refuge's most hardy residents - polar bears - spend most of the winter inside their dens.
But come spring, the snow begins to melt and reveals an emerald green landscape of river deltas and lake-size pools that draw millions of migratory birds from around the world, including Arctic terns from Antarctica, buff- breasted sandpipers from Argentina, dunlins from the coast of China, and tundra swans from the Chesapeake Bay.
Each spring the caribou of the Porcupine herd leave their wintering grounds south of the Brooks Range and in Canada's Yukon Territory and begin the long journey north. A portion of the herd stops at the Ivvavik National Park, a section of coastal plain set aside as a calving area by the Canadian government. The rest of the herd heads west toward the Arctic refuge's coastal plain. Caribou can cover 10 to 30 miles in a single day and over the course of a year can travel up to 3,000 miles - the longest migration by any terrestrial mammal.
The instinct of the caribou to reach the coastal plain to calve is so strong that they will trudge through deep snow on mountain passes and cross icy rivers, with the buoyant hollow hairs of their winter coats keeping them afloat and broad hooves allowing the animals to swim as fast as 6 miles an hour. They paw through snow to find hidden vegetation and sometimes climb wind- swept mountains to find food with less snow cover.
The herd is driven toward the coastal plain in part to escape harassment by mosquitoes and oestrid flies, which lay their larvae inside the animals' nostrils. As temperatures heat up in July and early August, the caribou move closer to the coast, where gusty winds and cooler weather provide some relief from insects.
Proponents of drilling insist the caribou's migration wouldn't be affected by oil operations. The proposed legislation would restrict oil exploration to the winter months, when the caribou have left for their winter range, and limit the surface area for oil wells and drill pads.
But government studies and interviews with caribou biologists suggest that advocates of drilling may be underestimating the potential effects on the Porcupine herd.
After a series of tough winters and poor reproductive cycles, the herd's population dropped from a high of about 178,000 in 1989 to 123,000 in the most recent census in 2001.
"The population of this herd is essentially flat," said Ray Cameron, a wildlife biologist at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, who spent two decades studying caribou for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. "Consequently, it would take less of an impact to put the Porcupine caribou herd into decline - and that has potential impacts on users of caribou."
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