'We can't give up:' First Nations to fight Alaska drills on caribou calving land

'We can't give up:' First Nations to fight Alaska drills on caribou calving land

Canadian First Nations are gearing up to fight new U.S. oil-drilling interest in the calving grounds of a caribou herd key to Indigenous physical and cultural survival.

"We will continue to fight," said Chief Wanda Pascal of the Tetlit Gwich'In in Fort McPherson, N.W.T.

"We can't give up. It's too important."

President Donald Trump's administration has announced the start of a 60-day environmental review before selling drilling leases in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge.

The area is one of the most pristine and wildlife-rich areas in the United States, often described as an "American Serengeti." It is also the calving ground for the 218,000-strong Porcupine caribou herd, the largest and healthiest herd left on Earth, which migrates into Yukon and the Northwest Territories.

All First Nations along the herd's migration route oppose drilling, said Dana Tizya-Tramm of the Vuntut Gwich'In government in Yukon.

"There has been no meaningful attempt to engage with Gwich'In people," he said.

The herd is managed by a legally binding treaty between Canada and the U.S., which commits both nations to preserving its habitat.

Earlier this month, all Canadian signatories to the treaty — including the federal government and the Northwest Territories and Yukon — met in Inuvik, N.W.T., to reaffirm their commitment to conserving the herd's calving grounds.  

None of the governments involved was immediately able to outline Friday how that commitment would be fulfilled in light of the new U.S. plans. In the past, both federal Liberals and Conservatives have opposed disturbing the area.

Tizya-Tramm said First Nations are preparing submissions to public hearings to be held in Alaska.

"We are now solidifying a robust strategy that will carry us through the landscape of what's to come," he said. "It is our hope we will be meeting these entities with their public calls  for comments at their meetings."

The First Nations will also resume lobbying the U.S. public.

"We need to be addressing both the grassroots and the highest levels."

Joanna Jack of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society's Yukon office said she's concerned the review's tight 60-day timeline suggests the U.S. isn't really serious about evaluating all the risks.

"That's a really aggressive timeline to take an adequately rigorous look at the file."

Gwich'In people refer to the calving grounds as "the sacred place where life begins," Tizya-Tramm said. Caribou is on the dinner table several times a week in Aboriginal communities, where store-bought food is expensive and often poorer quality.

As well, the animals are at the heart of the Gwich'In culture and language.

"They get us out on the land. They teach us about the land," said Tizya-Tramm. "They bring us together and are the carrier of our culture."

The Porcupine herd faced the possibility of drilling on its calving grounds about 10 years ago, but that was stopped under the Obama administration.

Science suggests that while caribou can live with energy infrastructure on their migration routes, they are sensitive to such disturbance on their calving grounds.   

A 2002 report from the U.S. Department of the Interior concluded oil drilling in the refuge would pose substantial risk to the calving grounds.

— Follow Bob Weber on Twitter at @row1960

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press