Gwich’in leaders in Washington D.C. in bid to protect Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is still under threat of oil and gas exploration due to drilling program imposed by former U.S. president Donald Trump.

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

The Gwich'in delegation Washington, D.C. Photo: Facebook/Vuntut Gwitchin Government


Leaders, elders and youth from the Gwich’in Nation are in Washington, D.C., in an effort to restore protections for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

“We look forward to this matter one day being put to rest when we successfully admonish the highest protections that U.S. law can bestow on our sacred lands, the Arctic Refuge,” Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation (VGFN) in Old Crow, Yukon, told APTN News.

In what is described as one of the largest gatherings of Gwich’in Tribal leaders and chiefs to occur in D.C., the delegation is in talks with a number of leaders of key U.S. departments including the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the Department of Interior, and the U.S. Department of State which has taken action to temporarily protect the Arctic refuge and will play a critical role in seeking permanent protections.

The delegates also met with Debra Haaland, secretary of the Department of Interior who suspended the leases until a comprehensive analysis of the oil and gas program was completed

Despite its federally protected status, in 2017 the Trump administration authorized lease sales for over 600,000 hectares of the refuge for oil and gas exploration under the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

The 7.6 million hectare refuge, located in northeast Alaska, is home to endangered polar bears and delicate Arctic ecosystems.

Its coastal plain region located along the Beaufort Sea deemed Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit the sacred place where life begins – serves as critical calving grounds for the Porcupine Caribou herd. The area has sustained the Gwich’in in northeast Alaska and northern Canada for millennia.

“When we’re talking about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, we’re talking about the sacred place where life begins. We’re talking about where the caribou give birth. That is a sacred time for them. It should never be disturbed,” VGFN Elder Lorraine Netro told APTN in a prior interview.

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

A Porcupine caribou grazes on grass in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Photo: Malkolm Boothroyd


In January 2021, just before Trump’s departure from office, his administration followed through with lease sales of the ANWR though it resulted in little interest.

There were only three bidders, including the state of Alaska. The sales, which were expected to raise $1.8 billion in profit, generated a mere $14.4 million.

Biden, who promised to reverse the lease sales, has since suspended drilling in the ANWR and has also agreed to work with Canada to protect the refuge.

But Tizya-Tramm says the fight is not over as the ANWR is slated for another lease sale in 2024.

“There’s a new environmental impact statement process. It’s kind of restarting, but to actually reverse and stop this, they need to take this out of law, and this is the process that is being put underway right now,” he says.

He notes it’s a “critical time” for Gwich’in chiefs to meet with U.S. representatives due to ensure restoring protections to ANWR is included in this year’s budget reconciliation bill, which the Biden administration has six to eight weeks to impose sweeping legislation.

“This is our opportunity to really leverage that change and bring some protection to these lands that our nation has been working towards for decades,” he says.

The Gwich’in delegation wraps up its meetings in D.C. on May 19.

Reporter / Whitehorse

Sara Connors is originally from Nova Scotia and has a Journalism degree from the University of King’s College in Halifax. After graduation she worked in South Korea for two years as an English Language teacher and freelance journalist. After she returned home in 2019 she worked behind the scenes at CTV Atlantic in Halifax before joining APTN's Yukon bureau in July 2020.