The Porcupine Caribou Herd migrates across 250,000 square kilometers of wild lands. Much of that habitat is coincidentally rich with oil and gas resources.
As fuel prices rise, and as public concerns about fuel scarcity grow, the herd faces the possibility increased development in the Canadian portion of the herd's range.
Although the Porcupine Caribou Management Board (PCMB) would prefer to keep all the herd's habitat pristine, it does not oppose responsible development. To ensure the habitat is well protected, the PCMB makes recommendations about proposed activities in the herd's range. The PCMB relies on the Porcupine Caribou Technical Committee, a team of experts, to provide advice about the herd's use of its habitat and the influence of human activities in its range.
Decades of widespread opposition has prevented development in the herd's primary calving and post-calving grounds, referred to as the 1002 lands in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.
The 1002 lands are possibly the single most critical habitat for the herd. When the calves are born elsewhere, calf survival tends to decline. The International Porcupine Caribou Board reported the importance of these calving and post-calving habitats in Sensitive Habitats of the Porcupine Caribou Herd.
Because it is in the United States, this area is outside the PCMB's authority, but the PCMB monitors the issue very closely because it is a critical habitat for the herd.
Today, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, including the 1002 lands, is the only area on Alaska's North Slope where oil and gas exploration and development is prohibited by law. However, the 1002 lands are threatened by oil and gas development, which would simply require the U.S. to pass an act of Congress allowing oil and gas leasing. The strongest permanent protection afforded to lands for conservation in the United States is wilderness designation, and this is also under consideration.
What if the 1002 lands are allowed to be developed? The Board is working to identify management options that will best mitigate any damage. Unfortunately, whatever measures might be imposed, the herd's population would risk suffering a significant drop.
And whether hunting restrictions are imposed or there are simply fewer caribou available to hunt, 1002 development would probably affect Porcupine Caribou harvesters.
If the PCMB opposes the Americans developing 1002, what does it have to say about developments in Canada, where local people might reap the benefits as well as suffer the environmental consequences?
Again, the PCMB won't object to responsible development. But to the PCMB, development cannot take place responsibly on the calving grounds -- at all. In other parts of the range, development might take place responsibly, if precautions are taken.
The Eagle Plains area of the Yukon has seen ongoing oil and gas exploration and testing activity. In 2006, interest in that area and the Peel Plateau area has increased substantially. Oil and gas development in Yukon depend on transportation of the resource to market. Thus, unless pipeline is built to deliver oil and gas down the Dempster Highway, it is unlikely that these developments will amount to much. However, as long as the future of the pipeline remains unknown, the PCMB is committed to treating the concern of developments as real. After all, resource companies are making significant investments to ensure their companies are well positioned to extract resources in case the pipeline is built.
The PCMB looks at developments in Eagle Plains and the Peel Plateau with serious concern. At every available opportunity, the PCMB recommends measures to mitigate threats to the herd and its habitat. The PCMB also recommends ongoing studies and monitoring to ensure everything possible is being done to mitigate damage.
The Mackenzie Gas Project does not directly affect the herd because the project sites are not on lands used by the herd. It does indirectly affect the herd because the project would bring increased traffic on the Dempster Highway, which poses a concern for the Board.
The herd does not use any particular winter range as regularly or predictably as they use the calving range. But whichever winter range a caribou does use in any year, is important to the caribou that year.
Some researchers suggest that wintering habitat might be as important as the calving grounds, but that the impacts of development in the winter habitat are different and less understood.
- The caribou might avoid important habitat. The Eagle Plains area is an important part of the herd's winter habitat, rich in lichen, an important part of a caribou diet. Although caribou are most resilient to human activity during the wintertime, caribou still tend to avoid areas of human activity. Too much activity in Eagle Plains might displace the caribou from their chosen habitat.
- Increased traffic on the Dempster Highway might damage the caribou's food supply.
- Dust from traffic might affect the quality and quantity of lichen.
- Increased activity in the area might also introduce invasive plant species, which could further threaten their food supply.
- If the caribou don't find enough food in the winter, overwinter survival, calf survival and pregnancies could be affected.
- Increased human activity along the Dempster Highway could also directly affect the herd as a result of two factors:
- increased hunting pressure on the herd
- increased losses of caribou due to collisions with vehicles.
The PCMB is not as concerned about any of these potential effects in isolation as it is with what is called "cumulative impacts." When looked at in combination, especially when considered together with activities in other parts of in the herd's range, the effects of development could be serious.
It is important to bear in mind too that the population of the herd appears to be declining. This means that the herd might not be as resilient to human activity as it should be.
The PCMB passed a resolution in November of 2006 stating that the herd is in immediate need of conservation. Part of that responsibility involves assessing the oil and gas developments in the herd's range and making recommendations.
Sometimes, the PCMB might have to recommend that certain parts of the herd's habitat should be left alone entirely, as in the 1002 lands. In the Yukon oil and gas rights disposition review this spring, as well as in the YESAB submissions and in the Joint Review Panel submission, the PCMB recommended proceeding with caution and included specific activities to ensure the projects affect the caribou and its habitat as little as possible.
Recommendations address several factors:
- reduce hunting pressures (companies should be required to prohibit employees and contractors from hunting – this could be a condition for permits)
- development should be restricted to resilient landscapes
- roads should be constructed for use in the winter only, to lessen the road's impact on habitat
- companies should be required to employ First Nation wildlife monitors and empower conservation officers to close activities when caribou are nearby
The PCMB also advocates long-term monitoring programs to assess cumulative effects of human activity on ecosystems. Additional studies on issues like invasive species are also recommended.
Pursuant to its mandate, the PCMB has made comments at each and every opportunity in an effort to protect the herds' habitat.
In the spring of 2007, the PCMB made recommendations to the Yukon Environmental and Socio-Economic Assessment Board (YESAB) about a proposed project at Eagle Plains, to reduce its impact on the herd. YESAB made a report to the Minister, and the Minister issued a decision. The following links provide the PCMB's recommendations to YESAB, YESAB's report to the minister, and the Minister's decision.
In April of 2007, the PCMB made submissions to Government of Yukon about oil and gas rights dispositions in the Eagle Plains area. The Government recently awarded 13 of the dispositions, and projects will require approvals from the YESAB before major activities can commence. The PCMB will be watching the developments and making YESAB submissions as required.
In September of 2007, the PCMB again made submissions to Government of Yukon about oil and gas rights dispositions in the herd's winter range.
Although the Mackenzie Gas Project does not directly affect the herd, it might indirectly affect the herd's habitat by increasing the traffic significantly on the Dempster Highway. The PCMB made recommendations to the Joint Review Panel to ensure the herd is protected in the best way possible if that project proceeds.
In December 2007, the PCMB made recommendations to YESAB about Cash Minerals' proposal to develop a winter road through the Wernecke Mountains to access its uranium exploration sites that it has previously been accessing by air. The review dealt with the winter road, not the exploration, which has already been taking place for a few years.
In February 2009, the PCMB submitted comments regarding the YESAA Five-Year Review. The PCMB's primary concern was the lack of a YESAA mandate to deal with cumulative effects on the Canadian range of the herd -- not only by proposed projects under review, but also other human activities throughout the herd's range.