Report bolsters claims of Gwich'in Nation
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Department of Interior scientists have been directed to reconsider an oil drilling report which cites dangers to a herd of caribou central to the life and culture of an Alaskan tribe.

In a letter to a department superior, U.S. Geological Survey Director Charles Groat on Friday wrote that he was concerned about the intense political debate over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Bush administration supports oil and gas development in the refuge's coastal plain under a plan approved by the House.

Prospects are dimmer in the Democrat-controlled Senate, where an energy bill faces resumed debate next week after a long delay. The wait in part is associated with threats the Gwich'in Nation, an Athabaskan tribe, says development will pose to the Porcupine caribou herd they depend upon for subsistence.

Under five scenarios evaluated by government scientists and reviewed by outside academics, four would impact the animals, the report said. A fifth -- no development -- would obviously have no effect but since Congress and the administration want to limit exploration, Groat said additional research is needed.

Nevertheless, the information provided bolsters claims the tribe has made in arguing against development. The herd's preferred birthing area lies in the "1002" part of the refuge eyed by the Bush administration.

"Petroleum development will most likely result in restricting the location of concentrated calving areas, calving sites, and annual calving grounds," the report states.

But when the caribou calve outside of the coastal plain -- in Canada, for instance -- the tribe says the herd fares poorly. Department scientists quantified this as a 19 percent reduction in the survival rate and said calving females and their offspring face reduced weight and females are less likely to conceive.

Drilling proponents, including Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska), Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) and Inupiat Eskimos, have frequently pointed to the Central Arctic caribou herd as proof that drilling can be done without impacting wildlife. Although there have been dips in population, the herd's numbers have increased in the past two decades.

The tribe and department scientists, however, note the differences of the Porcupine herd. Of all the caribou in Alaska, the Porcupine have the lowest growth rate (4.9 percent), according to the report, compared to the Central herd (10.9 percent).

Infrastructure, often called the "footprint" of development, also will play a role, reported the researchers. The tribe says females will avoid roads and pipelines during the spring-summer calving season, a position the report supports. As long as females have "free access" to the 1002 and surrounding areas, the scientists say the impacts can be avoided.

Groat said he anticipates supplemental information in the coming week or two. Despite his misgivings, the White House was quick to discount what has been provided by the agency he heads.

"We're not looking at what the USGS studied," said spokesman Gordon Johndroe.

By law, only Congress can authorize exploration or development in the 1002 area. The House has approved a 2,000-acre footprint limitation.

Of the 1.5 million acres targeted for development, 92,000 acres are owned by Inupiat Eskimos in fee simple, non-trust title. Arctic Slope Regional Corp., one of 13 regional corporations, and Kaktovik Inupiat Corp., a village entity, hold surface and subsurface rights.

Get the Report (Note: links on this page are slow to download):
Arctic Refuge Coastal Plain Terrestrial Wildlife Research Summaries (U.S. Geological Survey Biological Science Report: USGS/BRD/BSR-2002-0001, March 29, 2001)

Relevant Links:
Gwich'in Steering Committee -
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Pro-Development site -

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