The Gwich’in and the porcupine caribou herd, North America

Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm, Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation

The porcupine caribou herd (Rangifer tarandus granti) is an iconic group of animals in North America with a range that stretches from Alaska in the United States to the Northwest Territories in Canada. In the world’s longest mammal migration, the porcupine travels over 2,400 kilometres each year across the traditional territory of the Gwich’in nation. The porcupine and the Gwich’in now face complex persistent threats that include ineffective interjurisdictional management, impacts from industrial activity, and climate change.

The Gwich’in are a caribou people whose nation spans 15 communities across the migratory route of the porcupine in the high Arctic. They have relied heavily on the strength and vitality of the porcupine for thousands of years for their food security. They share an intimate connection with the lands and waters that make up the very substance of their spiritual and cultural identity and livelihoods. The health and productivity of the porcupine and the physical and cultural survival of the Gwich’in are one and the same.

Canada has combined the porcupine as a subpopulation of the barren-ground caribou (Rangifer tarandus groenlandicus) in its Species At Risk classification.[i] This artificially inflates population numbers for the declining barren-ground caribou herds and creates the perception that the porcupine occurs more widely, which has resulted in the approval of major industrial projects without an accurate or adequate impact assessment.

One example is the De Beers Gahcho Kue diamond mine, which is in barren-ground caribou calving grounds in the Northwest Territories. The calving grounds are located in “lizhik Gwats’ and Gwandaii Goodlit” (The Sacred Place Where Life Begins), in the 1002 Area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR, in Alaska). ANWR, one of the largest intact ecosystems in the world, was established in 1960 and expanded in 1980 to include a moratorium on oil and gas development with the intention of preserving the “fish and wildlife populations and habitats in their natural diversity”[ii]. However, recent pressure from the United States oil and gas lobby has successfully opened the 1002 ANWR to accelerated oil and gas exploration through the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 which allows lease sales, seismic testing, and drilling to take place. The Act required that lease sales be completed by the end of 2019, limiting the scope and rigour of the environmental impact assessment typically associated with major projects. Bipartisan legislation, the Arctic Cultural Coastal Plain Protection Act, has been passed in the United Stated House of Representatives by those who believe that the purpose of the wildlife refuge is antithetical to oil and gas development. This has been passed on to the Senate.[iii]

This development puts strains on achieving the objectives of Treaty E100687: Agreement Between the Government of Canada and the Government of the United States of America on the Conservation of the Porcupine Caribou Herd—a bilateral international treaty in force since 17 July 1987. The treaty is administered by the International Porcupine Caribou Board, whose core responsibility is management of the herd. The board was established in 1985 following the negotiation of the Porcupine Caribou Management Agreement and includes representation from both government and indigenous nations/organisations.[iv] It has the authority to make recommendations to the federal and territorial ministers based on information gathered in any manner—including information based on traditional knowledge, innovations and practices—to inform recommendations on an equal footing to science. However, the board’s last report was released in 1998[v] and it has not convened a meeting since November 2016.

Recognising the significant historical, spiritual, and cultural impacts that any industrial activity will have on the porcupine and the Gwich’in people, the 634 First Nations Chiefs of the Assembly of First Nations have demonstrated overwhelming and continuous support to the Gwich’in through passing of resolutions and calling on the governments of Canada and the United States to ensure that the critical habitat located in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge be permanently protected through designation as a protected area.

[i] Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (2016) COSEWIC Assessment and Status Report on the Caribou Rangifer tarandus Barren-ground population in Canada. Ottawa: COSEWIC.

[ii] Gelb, B.A. (2005) ANWR Development: Economic impacts. Report. Washington D.C.: Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress.

[iii] Sedlak, S.R. (2019) ‘Arctic Cultural and Coastal Plain Protection Act (HR 1146, 116th Congress): SciPol Summary’. Duke University Science & Society Initiative. Available at: https://scipol.org/track/hr1146-amend-public-law-115-97-commonly-known-tax-cuts-and-jobs-act-repeal-arctic-national

[iv] Porcupine Caribou Management Board: https://www.pcmb.ca/about

[v] Government of Canada (2019) ‘Canada-United States agreement on porcupine caribou herd conservation’. Available at: https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/corporate/international-affairs/partnerships-countries-regions/north-america/canada-united-states-porcupine-caribou-conservation.html

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