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Canadian report finds gaps in U.S. draft plan on coastal oil leases

The Porcupine Caribou Herd is one of the last healthy large-migratory herds in the world. photo courtesy of Marsha Branigan

A Canadian report found the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has information gaps on the risks that oil and gas development in coastal Alaska and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would pose to the harvest and habitat of Porcupine caribou.

The Porcupine Caribou Herd is one of the last healthy large-migratory herds in the world.
photo courtesy of Marsha Branigan

The Canadian vulnerability analysis found that BLM's 2018 Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) “does not have enough information to be confident that there is no short or long term risk to the Porcupine caribou herd, harvest availability or its habitat." The U.S. statement also failed to analyze caribou movement and distribution, according to the Canadian report.

The report, commissioned by the Yukon, NWT and federal governments outlines potential impacts to the herd if development goes ahead.

Shadow Lake Environmental Inc., authors of the report, will inform the governmental response to BLM’s draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which was released in late December,  said ENR spokesperson Joslyn Oosenbrug.

Gaps in the research conducted by the BLM and “misleading” parallels between effects of oil and gas drilling on the Central Arctic herd and the Porcupine herd were also found, according to the report.

With “almost no information on monitoring and adaptive management” in the EIS, the Canadian authors found a "lack of evidence" that planned mitigation measures would be effective. 

The Canadian report states the EIS did not analyse movements and distribution of caribou. Satellite collared caribou were analyzed to "quantify annual variations in distribution and exposure to climate and development."

The Canadian report used a computer model – the Caribou Cumulative Effects Model – and determined development in the coastal plain would produce a “19 per cent higher risk of a herd decline with 1002 development after 10 years” given the current population and an average climate.

The EIS is the next step in a plan to parcel out land for oil and gas development in the refuge and will identify what areas will be offered for leases, stipulations and management practices, stated the BLM in a news release. The BLM is accepting feedback on the EIS until March 13. 

The Porcupine caribou herd migrates through Alaska, Yukon and the NWT and is one of the last healthy herds in the world.

The Porcupine Caribou Herd uses the 1002 lands for one month each year. The time spent in the Coast Plain is "critical" to how many calves will join the herd.
photo courtesy of Porcupine Caribou Management Board

More than 100,000 Porcupine caribou travel to the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge during calving season. Calf survival would drop by nine per cent if a cow were denied access to the refuge's coastal plain because of their sensitivity to development, the Canadian report states.

An animated map posted on the Porcupine Caribou Management Board website shows satellite data of cows travelling to area 1002 during their annual migration.

The GNWT “recognizes that Porcupine caribou are a highly valued traditional, cultural and nutritional resource for Gwich’in and Inuvialuit communities in the Northwest Territories,” said Oosenbrug.

Protecting the calving and post-calving ranges in ANWR are important to sustain the herd, she said.

Axing development contravenes Trump administration’s change to U.S. Tax Cuts and Jobs Act 

In 2017, the Trump administration made changes to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that would open 1.5-million acres of the ANWR to oil and gas leasing.

When the refuge was expanded and renamed in 1980, the 1.57-million acre coastal plain, also referred to as 1002 lands, was not given wilderness designation.

Changes to the tax act stipulate that the BLM must oversee the leasing of two 400,000 acre tracts of the plain for oil and gas development by the end of 2024.

The BLM held its final public hearing in Washington, D.C. on its 700-page draft report which lays out options for oil development in ANWR. 

If the BLM did not allow activity in the coastal plain, it would contravene changes to the act and a directive to “administer a competitive oil and gas program,” the EIS states.

The BLM's report proposes two options to offer 1.5-million acres for lease with a range of surface occupancy stipulations. Two options would keep portions of the coastal plain off limits to leases to “protect biological and ecological resources” and place more than one million acres up for lease.

‘Little evidence’ BLM plan will mitigate caribou impacts

The BLM's report states its goal is for all lands in the Arctic Refuge Coastal Plain to be “recognized as habitat of the Porcupine Caribou Herd and Central Arctic Herd" and "be managed to ensure unhindered movement of caribou through the area.”

The Canadian report found that the evidence and procedures presented by the BLM offer “little evidence that this goal is yet achievable.”

The NWT’s formal position on that activity is that development in the ANWR poses “significant risks” for the herd and all those who depend on it, said Oosenbrug.

“While the GNWT recognizes the importance of both caribou conservation and economic development for Northerners, current experience and evidence do not provide confidence that these risks can be effectively mitigated if development proceeds in ANWR,” she said.

Parties to the Porcupine Caribou Management Agreement have collectively supported gathering all available information on possible impacts of development on barren-ground caribou and the Porcupine herd, said Oosenbrug.

Since 1985, the GNWT has worked alongside the communities of Aklavik and Fort McPherson through the Porcupine Caribou Management Board (PCMB). The advisory board offers recommendations on herd management under the Porcupine Caribou Management Agreement (PCMA).

Parties to the PCMA include appointed members from the Canadian, Yukon and NWT governments and from Gwich’in Tribal Council, Inuvialuit Game Council,  Vuntut Gwitchin, Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in and Na-cho Nyäk Dün.

All parties to the PCMB have “unanimously agreed” development should not be permitted in ANWR because of its detrimental effect to the Porcupine caribou herd.