Efforts to preserve the Gwich’in way of life were cast back into the pit this week after a Jan. 20 executive order by U.S. President Joe Biden which temporarily suspended oil and gas lease sales on federal land was blocked by a Trump-appointed judge.

Signed on his first day of office, the order questioned the legal validity of lease sales issued by former U.S. President Donald Trump following his defeat in the 2020 October election in numerous federally controlled areas, including Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit — or the Sacred Place Where Life Begins — the calving grounds for the porcupine caribou, a vital component of both the Gwich’in diet and culture.

However, judge Terry A. Doughty of the United States District Court, for the Western District of Louisiana, granted a preliminary injunction against the executive order June 15.

“Millions and possibly billions of dollars are at stake,” wrote the judge in his decision. He ruled that because the decision to open federal lands and water to leasing was made by Congress, only Congress could suspend leasing. The judge, who was awarded his post by Trump, also said the fact 13 republican-led states are suing the Biden administration over the executive order shows there was a “substantial likelihood that President Biden exceeded his powers.”

A March lawsuit filed by Louisiana, Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and West Virginia demanded the temporary ban be lifted, saying their economies could be irreparably harmed by the pause on drilling.

Under the ruling, the suspension cannot be enforced until the March lawsuit has been concluded. In the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge, which houses the sacred calving grounds of the Porcupine Caribou, nine of those leases are held by the Alaskan government after an attempt to sell off the culturally irreplaceable lands to oil drillers was met with little interest.

Approximately 10 per cent of the United States’ oil and gas supply comes from public lands. A bill proposing changing the classification of the 1002 area being eyed by the oil industry into a wilderness area is currently making its way through Congress.

Caribou need for refuge increasing

All this comes at the same time a new study published in the journal Global Change Biology has concluded the porcupine herd will likely become more reliant on the sacred lands as climate change progresses.

Examining radio collar information from 2012 to 2018 and comparing it to reported weather conditions, the scientists were able to determine the caribou migrate to the refuge earlier and stay there longer in warmer years when the snow melts earlier. In colder years, the caribou move southeast into the Yukon territory and calve there.

A map of the portions of Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit — or the Sacred Place Where Life Begins — that were put up for sale Jan. 6. With a complete lack of interest from major oil companies, the Alaskan government purchased nine of 1 lease sales and 11 more remained un-bid on. Scientists are predicting the area will become even more vital to the porcupine caribou’s survival as climate change progresses. photo courtesy of U.S. Bureau of Land Management

With this data in hand, the study projects habitat suitable for calving will increasingly be concentrated into the refuge, with suitable habitat in the Yukon decreasing by 31 per cent in 2050. Conversely, suitable breeding habitat in the Arctic Refuge and particularly the 1002 area that has been targeted for drilling is projected to expand by a 429 per cent. Overall, caribou habitat in Alaska is expected to expand by 115 per cent, barring any human activity that may disrupt habitat.

As of the most recent count, there are 218,000 caribou in the porcupine herd, making it one of the largest remaining herds on the planet.

GTC President not worried… yet

Gwich’in Tribal Council Grand Chief Ken Kyikavichik says he’s not panicking, noting the judicial decision is just one step in an ongoing process.

“We’ve been at this for 30 years,” he said. “It’s just another ebb and flow in the situation. We won’t get too excited either way.

“You take a win when you can and prepare for battle when you have a set back.”

He noted the momentum was still in the refuge’s favour and said he was keeping to a wait and see approach.

Further legal actions from either side could change the ruling again, he pointed out, and to date no on the ground exploration has been conducted in the refuge.

“We’ll continue to remain united in our work with the Gwich’in nations in Alaska and the Yukon to protect the porcupine caribou.

“Nothing changes from that.”

Eric Bowling

Breaking News Reporter and Digital Editor for NNSL, Eric operates out of Inuvik in the Beaufort Delta. He's four years into his Northern adventure and is eager to learn more about life in the Arctic Circle....

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