Tucked away in the far northeast corner of Alaska lies countless kilometres of ancient Porcupine calving grounds.
These lands, protected by the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve, are sacred to the Gwich’in peoples who live in Alaska and northern Canada.
In August, U.S. President Donald Trump finalized its plan to auction about 607,000 hectares of the 7.6 million hectare reserve to oil and gas development, with potential bidding to start as early as the end of this year.
This decision has infuriated Gwich’in First Nations on both side of the border, as any infrastructural disturbance to the coastal plains could have disastrous environmental effects.
“When I talk about our way of life and the importance of the caribou to our way of being, I become really emotional,” Lorrain Netro, an Elder from Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation in northern Yukon, told APTN News.
“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.”
In June of each year, tens of thousands of Porcupine caribou gather on Alaska’s Arctic coastal plains for about one month to calve.
These plains are critical when it comes to Porcupine caribou calving season; the land is where young, vulnerable caribou are nursed and eventually weaned, while also acting as an insect-relief habitat.
Porcupine caribou are central to Gwich’in life; they are the main source of food for communities where food security has become problematic, and their hides and bones can be used as tools and clothing.
These plains are thought to sit atop billions of dollars worth of oil, and for decades, companies have been chomping at the bit to drill in its coastal plains, despite its status as federally protected wildlife refuge.
Former president Ronald Regan first proposed drilling in the refuge in the late 1980s, but U.S. Democrats stopped those proposals.
However, under the Trump administration’s move to advance the U.S. expansion of fossil fuel production, a bill authorizing lease sales was passed by Congress in 2017.
Bobbie Jo Greenland-Morgan, the former grand chief of the Gwich’in Tribal Council, said the administration’s decision to start auctioning comes as a slap in the face to the Gwich’in Nation.
“When it comes to the Gwich’in people, we are totally being disrespected and ignored,” she said. “I think this decision is a very wrong decision.”
Drilling likely to cause environmental disaster
Conservationists fear drilling in the refuge will almost certainly cause irreversible damage.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) said on its website that as Arctic ice drifts continue to melt at an alarming rate, polar bears are increasingly turning to the refuge’s protective terrain to give birth and raise their young.
Without the plains’ nursery-like environment, the WWF predicts “mother bears may exit the den prematurely with their cubs, exposing them to the extreme elements and risking their survival.”
Drilling and the infrastructure that comes with it, such as roads, wells and an influx of heavy duty, mega-carbon vehicles, will also disrupt the refuge’s delicate ecosystem, said to be one of the most diverse habitats within a single protected unit.
“A perfect example of intact, naturally functioning Arctic and subarctic ecosystems,” according to the Alaska Wilderness League, disturbance and destruction of the ecosystems within the plains will undoubtedly cause a ripple effect of food scarcity for humans and animals alike.
Porcupine caribou will be at the heart of this interference
Environmentalists argue roads and pipelines that will sprawl across the tundra will fracture vital caribou habitat. Development has been found to keep caribou away; researchers in the N.W.T. found caribou strayed as far as 14 kilometers from diamond mines. In long term studies of the Porcupine herd, caribou continued to avoid areas close to roads and wells decades after development had ended.
Greenland-Morgan said having accessibility to these animals was crucial for Gwich’in communities in the N.W.T., as they were confronted with food disruption during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It reassured us here, in our region, the importance of protecting that area and the caribou,” she said.” “Overnight, things really took a turn. People were fortunate to have freezers full of caribou and fish and other animals that we live on. If the highway got shut down and people couldn’t make it in, we were okay, and we got to think of things like that.”
For both women, the reality is clear: drilling in the refuge could very well spell the end of a vital food source for their people, as well as their spiritual connection to the animal.
“We, as a traditional people, as a Gwich’in people, have to protect our environment and our sacred places,” Netro said. “If people want to intrude on our lands, then they must consult with our people, and this is not happening.”
For the last 20 years, Netro has been involved with the refuge, serving on both the Gwich’in Steering Committee as a representative for Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation and on the Alaska Wilderness League, as well as frequently travelling to Washington D.C. to meet with decision makers.
An exhausting battle at times, Netro said she’s compelled to continue on.
“I know what we’re up against,” she said.
“But the most important thing to remember as we walk out into the world are those little children in our communities and the elders that provide us the love and guidance that we need. We need to do everything in our power to make sure that their voices and concerns are heard, through our voices.”
Environmental review flawed, auction being considered a human rights violation
Last month, the Gwich’in steering committee and allies filed a lawsuit against Trump’s secretary of Interior and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, claiming that the leasing program would “hand over” the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the oil and gas industry.
The lawsuit pinpoints several violations of environmental acts, and argues that the environmental analysis was rushed, public opinion was excluded and that Indigenous input was not considered. A United Nations committee is now investigating to see if the drilling violates the Gwich’in peoples’ human rights.
Netro said there’s no argument.
“We have a lot of rules and regulations within the government that state Indigenous people of the world have a right to maintain and strengthen our spiritual relationship and our cultural relationship within our traditional territories,” she said.
Of additional concern is the Trump administration’s environmental review of the refuge.
As a requirement, the U.S. Department of Interior was obligated to conduct a review of the potential environmental effects of drilling in the refuge. The review stated infrastructure could harm wildlife, but suggested alternatives to lessen environmental damage, like prohibiting the use of heavy equipment during caribou calving season.
The review has been denounced by environmental groups, who argue that its research failed to address several key issues, such as the effect it would have on weakening numbers of polar bears.
There’s been additional criticism directed at the Trump administration’s timing of the auctioning. Drilling in the refuge’s harsh and unforgiving terrain is difficult and expensive, and few energy companies are clamoring to drill in an era increasingly turning towards green energy. In solidarity with groups fighting to protect the refuge, many U.S. banks have announced they would not directly fund oil and gas drilling in the Arctic, further limiting potential interest in the area.
Greenland-Morgan said the president’s desire to potentially ruin a pristine environment with no firm benefit in sight is “simply selfish.”
“I have a lot that I would say to President Trump,” she said.
“I would say to him listen to the people. This is not about President Trump, although he holds a lot of power over this administration, this is about our future generations, and I would like him to think about that.”
Gwich’in not backing down
Despite the Gwich’ins’ and numerous environmental groups objections, Alaskan Senator Dan Sullivan said the jobs it creates will be beneficial for Alaskans.
APTN News request for comment form the Senator’s office was not returned by press time.
APTN also made repeated requests to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management for comment which were not returned. During a final request call, a representative for the bureau promptly hung up.
On Sept. 17, 250 environmental and religious groups from all 50 U.S. states sent a letter to four potential oil lease bidders, demanding they not drill in the refuge.
Despite mounting public outcry, the Trump administration continues to stand by its decision and fully plans to forge ahead with the auction.
But the fight isn’t over for the Gwich’in Nation.
Netro said although they’re facing many challenges, her people are warriors, and with help from supporters, the Gwich’in Nation is a force to be reckoned with.
“Our elders have always taught us to stand up for what we believe in. It’s my responsibility as a Gwich’in person, a Gwich’in woman, to add my voice to how to protect our sacred place for all future generations of Gwich’ins.”
“We are not going to sacrifice our lives, and we’re not going to compromise.”