Born to Be Eaten

What’s at stake in the fight over development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge? A caribou herd, and a culture that relies on it.

Eva Holland | Longreads | May 30, 2019 | 26 minutes (7,122 words)

Calving

The caribou cow gives birth on her feet. She stands with legs wide apart, or turns on the spot, shuffling in slow circles, craning her long neck to watch as her calf emerges inch by inch from below her tail, between her hips. It’s oddly calm, this process — a strange thing to witness for us two-legged mammals, more accustomed to the stirrups and the struggle and the white-knuckled screaming of a Hollywood birth scene.

The calf, when he comes, emerges hooves first. He climbs into the world fully extended, like a diver stretching toward the water. Out come the front pair of hooves, capping spindly legs, then the long narrow head, the lean, wet-furred body, and finally, another set of bony legs and sharp little hooves. His divergence from his mother leaves behind nothing but some strings of sticky fluid and a small patch of bloody fur. He doesn’t know it, but the land he is born on is one of the most contentious stretches of wilderness in North America.

The calf, when he comes, emerges hooves first…He doesn’t know it, but the land he is born on is one of the most contentious stretches of wilderness in North America.

Still slick with mucus, the calf takes his first steps within minutes, stumbling awkwardly to his feet as his mother licks him clean. Within 24 hours, he is able to walk a mile or more. Soon, if he survives long enough, he will be capable of swimming white-water rivers, outrunning wolves, and trotting overland for miles upon miles every day. His life will offer myriad dangers and only the rarest respite; for the caribou, staying alive means staying on the move.

The days and weeks immediately after his birth are critical. That’s why, if at all possible, his mother will have sought out a known quantity, a place of relative safety, before he arrived. That’s why, every year, tens of thousands of heavily pregnant caribou cows return, salmon-like, to the places where they were born.

For the Porcupine caribou herd, 218,000 strong, that means a long march through snow-choked mountains to one of two calving grounds. One, lesser used, is in Canada, in the northwestern corner of the Yukon Territory between the Firth and Babbage rivers. It’s protected by the invisible boundaries of Ivvavik National Park.

The other, the most commonly used by the herd, is a small slice of land just across the border in northeastern Alaska, a flat patch tucked between the Brooks Range and the Beaufort Sea. The land is unassuming but critical: When, every so often, the herd fails to make it to the calving grounds on time — as can be the case when deep snow lingers late into the spring — their calves’ mortality rate can climb by as much as 20 percent.

This primary calving ground lies within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), but unlike its counterpart across the border, it has not been formally sealed off from large-scale human activity. Instead, for 40 years, a debate has raged about its status. On one side are those who want the oil that could lie below the calving grounds extracted. On the other are those who want the area protected from industry forever.

The Porcupine caribou herd is caught between the two, its fate tied up in Washington committee rooms and the fine print of legislation. And intimately connected to the caribou is the Gwich’in nation, roughly 9,000 people scattered across Alaska and northern Canada. In fighting to protect the caribou, they are fighting for their own survival.

And intimately connected to the caribou is the Gwich’in nation, roughly 9,000 people scattered across Alaska and northern Canada. In fighting to protect the caribou, they are fighting for their own survival.

***

The Refuge

In his short essay “Wilderness,” the conservationist and wilderness advocate Aldo Leopold issued a “plea for the preservation of some tag-ends of wilderness.” The wild country was vanishing, even when Leopold was writing in the 1940s, and these remnants would serve “as museum pieces,” he wrote, “for the edification of those who may one day wish to see, feel, or study the origins of their cultural inheritance.”

Leopold was ahead of his time in many ways, but he wasn’t alone in his desire to preserve intact wilderness areas. In 1953, the Sierra Club Bulletin ran an article by National Park Service staffers George Collins and Lowell Sumner called “Northeast Arctic: The Last Great Wilderness.” Collins and Sumner had recently traveled around Alaska, and their article was a call to permanently preserve the area that is now ANWR. Its publication marked the formal launch of a movement with that aim.

“This area offers what is virtually America’s last chance to preserve an adequate sample of the pioneer frontier,” Collins and Sumner wrote, “the Stateside counterpart of which has vanished. … It is not believed from the evidence now available that the area is within that part of the Arctic in which oil is to be found.”

In a more personal follow-up letter, published in the same bulletin, Sumner described the experience of seeing the Arctic hills alive with thousands upon thousands of caribou. “Now we know what it must have been like to see the buffalo herds in the old days,” he wrote, “and we know more vividly than ever what we have lost forever in the States. … One feels one has lived, and seen some of the world unspoiled, as it was intended people should see it, after an experience like that.”

In 1960, Collins and Sumner got a watered-down version of their wish. President Eisenhower’s Secretary of the Interior, Fred Seaton, designated 8.9 million acres of land in northeast Alaska as the Arctic National Wildlife Range. But under the original terms of ANWR’s establishment, some industrial activities were still permitted, and so the activists and conservationists who’d pushed for its complete protection kept pressing.

Soon after, the passage of the Wilderness Act created a national system of federally designated wilderness areas. The act, signed by President Johnson in 1964, defined wilderness as an area “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

Photo by Peter Mather

But the march toward wilderness preservation in Alaska was about to face potent competition. In mid-1967 and early 1968, the Prudhoe Bay oil field was discovered along the Arctic coast just west of the Porcupine herd’s territory. In 1973, the OPEC crisis hit, ratcheting up concerns about a domestic oil supply. In 1977, the Trans-Alaska pipeline system was completed, and Alaska’s oil began to flow.

In November 1980, the United States Congress passed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. Among other changes, it more than doubled the size of ANWR, to about 19 million acres — just slightly smaller than South Carolina. The act changed the name of the area, from the “Wildlife Range” to “Wildlife Refuge.” And within those 19 million acres, it formally designated 8 million as “wilderness” under the terms of the 1964 act.

The 1980 act also set aside 1.5 million non-wilderness acres on the refuge’s northern edge for further study — an area of ANWR’s coastal plain that encompasses the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd. Section 1002 of the act, titled “Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Coastal Plain Resource Assessment,” outlined a process of inventory and assessment of resources, and analysis of potential impacts of development, before oil and gas development would be authorized.

In other words: Wait and see. Full-blown oil and gas development was not yet permitted on the coastal plain, but the possibility of future extraction remained.

After decades of campaigning by conservationists, ANWR as we know it today was born. The refuge was built on the strength of powerful words and lofty ideals. Its founders envisioned it as a place that would feed the soul of humanity worldwide. Simply by continuing to exist in its natural state, “where man himself is a visitor,” it would provide an example to the world of what once was.

It’s a beautiful idea. But there’s one key flaw in this framing, of course: For at least 20,000 years, Gwich’in men and women have been much more than visitors to the land that we call ANWR. And they’re not the only ones: North of the refuge, along the coast, the Inupiat residents of communities like Kaktovik have also lived off the land and the ocean for millennia.

There’s another hitch, too: an assumption embedded both in Leopold’s famous essay and elsewhere. Of Alaska and Canada’s remaining wilderness areas, he wrote: “Many are of negligible or negative value for economic use.” That may have been true, or perceived as such by outsiders, in the 1940s when Leopold was writing. But by 1980, that assessment of the land’s economic utility was no longer widely shared.

***

Cutting Meat

Eventually, if he survives the golden eagles and bears that can seize the smallest calves, the infestations of parasitic warble flies, the hungry wolves, and the cold fast waters of every Arctic river crossing, the calf born wobbly-legged on the coastal plain might grow up to meet a bullet fired from a Gwich’in hunter’s rifle. He’ll be field-dressed, packed into town, skinned, sliced, smoked, dried, and fried.

Last summer, I visited the Gwich’in community of Arctic Village during caribou hunting season. Arctic Village, or Vashraii K’oo, is home to roughly 150 people. Reachable only by plane, it lies along the east fork of the Chandalar River, in the foothills of the Brooks Range: Cross the river, and you enter ANWR.

The permanent settlement here is only a century old. Within living memory, most Gwich’in residents of the region still lived nomadically or semi-nomadically, as they had for thousands of years: following the seasons and the caribou, hunting and trapping and fishing. Then came the miners and the stores and the schools and churches, the government officials and the gravel airstrip. It’s all startlingly recent: The first school was built in the neighboring Gwich’in village of Venetie in 1959.

Today, Arctic Village feels larger than its population would suggest. Its houses and buildings are strung along a couple of main roads, built around small kettle lakes and sometimes perched on top of low hills, their walls painted in bright purples and blues and greens. Despite the latitude, nearly two degrees north of the Arctic Circle, there are trees here — the place is green and pleasant, without the scrubbed-raw beauty that marks the coastal communities even further north. It’s a place that literally depends on the wilderness that surrounds it: Hunting and fishing is a critical source of food here. The small store on the corner of the village’s main intersection is thinly stocked with non-perishables that go for alarmingly high prices. (During my visit, a can of green beans was going for $4.30. A box of Ziplocs? $35!) With everything flown in by small plane, and flights often canceled by weather, fresh food is a rarity.

Today, Arctic Village feels larger than its population would suggest. Its houses and buildings are strung along a couple of main roads, built around small kettle lakes and sometimes perched on top of low hills, their walls painted in bright purples and blues and greens.

After hitchhiking from the airstrip into town on a stranger’s ATV, I pitched a tent behind Sarah James’s house. James, 74, has spent decades working to preserve the calving grounds and is the point of contact for a lot of the outsiders who pass through Arctic Village wanting to know more about ANWR. She welcomed me into her home with tea, pilot bread, and stories. Like everyone else that I met in the village, she kept an eye out the window facing the mountain that would bring the caribou each year, waiting, binoculars at hand.

Late on the evening of my second day there, a veteran local hunter and his granddaughter’s boyfriend shot four caribou outside of town. After the kills, they severed each animal’s head and bled the carcasses, then, after removing the skinny lower legs and hooves, carefully slit open the body cavities with practiced hands. They pulled out the animals’ stomachs and guts, then again, with careful, confident knife strokes, they skinned the caribou, separating hide from muscle and bone. They quartered the bodies and removed the meaty domes of the ribs. With the first pass at the butchering done, everything was wrapped in tarps for the ride home, the carcasses packed for the ride back to the village on ATVs. They bumped down the mountains and into the river valley under the long, dim twilight of a late-summer Arctic night, and turned in. Early the next morning, the women of the household got up to begin their part of the job.

By the time I arrived, around 9 the next night, most of the work was done. A hide was tacked up, skin side out, on the wall of the house to dry. Three bloody, skinned heads — dark eyes and fuzzy noses still intact, the rest all white muscle and bone — sat on bloody cardboard mats laid down on top of the outdoor tables where the finer work, the cutting and skinning, had been done. The smoker, a homemade structure on the property, was filled with deep-red cuts of meat, the slabs of ribs and backstraps, and lacy skeins of white fat, all hanging in the hazy darkness.

Virtually every part of the dead caribou would be put to work. The heads would be boiled or roasted, the meat stewed or boiled or fried or salted and dried. The hides would be stretched and dried for use as is, or tanned to make into clothing. Even the hooves, boiled to extract a thin gelatin in hungry times, would at least be saved to make into traditional rattles.

Virtually every part of the dead caribou would be put to work…Even the hooves, boiled to extract a thin gelatin in hungry times, would at least be saved to make into traditional rattles.

The antlers, used in the old days to make everything from arrow points to cutlery, were less needed now, in the age of stainless steel and cheap plastic. They hung above lintels or were stacked in front yards all over Arctic Village, silently testifying to the bond between the caribou and the Gwich’in.

***

The Gathering

A man stood at a microphone on a stage at the front of the packed-full community hall, holding a carved wooden talking cane and speaking in Gwich’in.

“If they destroy the calving grounds, where will the caribou go to calve?” he asked. “If they have their calves elsewhere, their young ones will not survive.”

Another man got up to have his turn. Again, he spoke in Gwich’in.

“They say there are a lot of caribou,” he said. “People always say there are a lot of caribou. … But once they start dying off, the herd will die off in no time. What will become of our children when the caribou go?”

Another: “I don’t know why they want to ruin our lives.”

Another: “We are going back to hard times again.”

It was June 1988, and Arctic Village was hosting the first Gwich’in gathering of the modern era. People had come in from all over: from Old Crow, in the Yukon, and from the villages of the Mackenzie Delta, in the Northwest Territories. From Venetie, just a short hop away, and from Fairbanks, far further south. Boats and small planes had brought them, motoring the murky river or bouncing down on the gravel airstrip up the hill from the village.

In the old days, a gathering had been called in times of crisis, of great need. The far-flung Gwich’in would come together to work out a way forward. Now, for the first time in more than a century, they felt compelled to do so again.

Relatives and old friends who’d been separated for decades by an international boundary they’d never agreed to were reunited. People two-stepped and sang hymns and danced and drummed, hide tassels on their clothes swinging. They gave speeches into the microphone about the importance of saving their language, and about the impact of alcohol on their communities.

In the old days, a gathering had been called in times of crisis, of great need. The far-flung Gwich’in would come together to work out a way forward. Now, for the first time in more than a century, they felt compelled to do so again.

Most of all, though, they talked about vadzaih, the caribou, and izhik gwats’an gwandaii goodlit — “the sacred place where life begins.” The calving grounds.

The establishment of the Arctic Refuge eight years earlier hadn’t settled the question of development in the region. Instead, the designation of the 1002 Area had left the door open to oil and gas exploration on the Porcupine caribou’s calving grounds. In the mid-1980s, seismic surveyors had attempted to map the area’s subsurface faults and folds to glean its geological secrets. Starting in 1985, a group led by Chevron had drilled an exploratory well on the coastal plain, delving more than 15,000 feet below the tundra, before capping the pipe. The results of the test were never announced. (A recent New York Times investigation suggests the test well was not promising.) Nevertheless, a 1987 Department of the Interior report recommended that Congress clear the way for potential drilling in the 1002 area.

The Gwich’in were sufficiently alarmed to call the gathering, and the event was galvanizing. It was, James told me 30 years later, “like a rebirth of the nation.” After the hugs and the tears, the dancing and the songs, after all the speeches, the chiefs of the 14 Gwich’in villages sequestered themselves to draft a resolution. It reads:

WHEREAS: For thousands of years, the Gwich’in People of northeast Alaska and northwest Canada, have relied on caribou for food, clothing, shelter, tools and life itself, and today the Porcupine (River) Caribou Herd remains essential to meet the nutritional, cultural and spiritual needs of our People;

and WHEREAS: The Gwich’in have the inherent right to continue our own way of life; and that this right is recognized and affirmed by civilized nations in the international covenants on human rights. Article 1 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, ratified by the U.S. Senate, reads in part: “…In no case may a People be deprived of their own means of subsistence”;

and WHEREAS: The health and productivity of the Porcupine Caribou Herd, and their availability to Gwich’in communities, and the very future of our People are endangered by proposed oil and gas exploration and development in their calving and post-calving grounds in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge…

NOW THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED: That the United States President and Congress recognize the rights of the Gwich’in People to continue to live our way of life by prohibiting development in the calving and post-calving grounds of the Porcupine Caribou Herd;

and BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED: That the 1002 area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge be made Wilderness to achieve this end.”

The resolution was unanimously approved. (It has been re-ratified every two years at the gatherings held ever since.) The Gwich’in had committed themselves to a long, hard fight, and they knew it. Outside the community hall, down by the brown, fast-flowing Chandalar River, an older man offered a pragmatic view of their chances to a documentary filmmaker. “If all the Gwich’in unite and work together, things may change for the better,” he said. “Forty to fifty years from now.”

As the gathering wound down, an elder offered a prayer in Gwich’in. “Heavenly father,” he said, “have mercy on me. I pray for my friends, I ask for food. … You made the earth and sky and everything on it. You have made these, so we can use them. But for me now, it is hard for me to live as I used to. This is why I am asking for your help. Have mercy on me, if it is your will. Help us. With your loving kindness, help us all.”

…an older man offered a pragmatic view of their chances to a documentary filmmaker. ‘If all the Gwich’in unite and work together, things may change for the better,’ he said. ‘Forty to fifty years from now.’

***

Like the Stars

The living room was dim, the thin sun of a cloudy afternoon filtering through the windows. I sat on a couch next to Calvin Tritt. He was an older, white-haired man, nearly 70. Above me on the wall, the words GWICH’IN NATION were painted in large letters.

Tritt was angry — not at me, exactly, but at everything I represented, everything that people like me had done to people like him. He gestured with his hands as he talked, his long fingers curling into fists. He remembered when things were different, he said. When everyone spoke Gwich’in, when the children were strong and disciplined and knew their culture like a second skin. That changed, he said, “because in the 1950s, their parents and grandparents were told to know their place.” They were abused in the government schools. They were punished if they spoke their language.

He was pessimistic about saving the refuge. “We don’t have power,” he said. “We don’t have any power to do anything, really.”

Then he startled me by quoting, from memory, from the 1990 film Dances With Wolves. When Kicking Bird, played by Graham Greene, asks him how many white men are coming, Kevin Costner’s character replies: “Like the stars.”

“And it’s true,” Tritt told me, raising his closed fists again. “You guys are coming. You’ll be here, and I’ll be gone, and all the animals will be gone.”

***

The Thirty Years’ War

On December 22, 2017, President Donald Trump signed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act into law. The complex bill had only narrowly made it through the Senate, by a final vote of 51–48, and while it contained an array of changes to the tax code, it also contained something else: a provision to explore drilling possibilities on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. That provision was widely regarded as securing the vote of Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, whose support of the tax bill had not been assured. Nearly 40 years after the 1002 loophole was created, and after 30 years of successful lobbying and resistance by the Gwich’in, ANWR was formally open to oil development. It had been a long fight.

It wasn’t long after the 1988 gathering that the Gwich’in had faced their first challenge. In March 1989, a bill to allow leasing across nearly a quarter of the 1002 area had passed a Senate subcommittee. But then, eight days later, the tanker Exxon Valdez tore itself open in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, spilling millions of gallons of crude oil. Suddenly, even for some of the pro-drilling politicians in Washington, the calculus changed.

The Edmonton Journal called the spill a “gift” to the caribou. Doug Urquhart, a Canadian member of the transnational Porcupine Caribou Management Board, wrote in the Yukon’s Dan Sha News that “every cloud has a silver lining.”

“The only positive aspect of the Valdez disaster,” he wrote, “is that it might save the Arctic National Refuge, the Porcupine Caribou Herd, and the thousands of Alaskan and Canadian native people who rely on the herd for economic and cultural survival.”

In the Lower 48, editorials supporting the preservation of the refuge, at least for the time being, popped up like morel mushrooms after a forest fire. “Until it is necessary to drill in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, it is clearly necessary not to,” went the slightly ambivalent line in the Philadelphia Enquirer. The Dallas Times Herald was more forceful: “It would be wrong to destroy about 1.5 million acres of natural habitat for no valid reason.” The Boston Globe called the energy security argument “a decoy,” and argued that, “on balance, the evidence suggests that risking ecological damage to the wildlife refuge is not justified.”

Vying with images of oil-slicked seals and birds, the Senate subcommittee bill withered. So did another, in 1991, the Johnston-Wallop National Energy Security Act. In 1995, yet another attempt made it through the House and the Senate before running headlong into President Clinton’s veto. There were more legislative skirmishes in 2002, and each time, the ban on oil exploration in the calving grounds held. The 1002 area remained in limbo.

In 2005, the issue came to a head again. In the Republican-led Congress, two different energy bills contained provisions that would have essentially opened the 1002 to drilling. Both were defeated by coalitions of Democrats and moderate Republicans. A third bill, one that targeted Pentagon spending, also included a drilling provision, but that provision was yanked after a successful filibuster.

Meanwhile, with every bill and every counter-campaign, the Arctic Refuge grew in public stature and was mythologized in the American consciousness. It had become a symbol, a talisman, to both sides. The fight over the refuge drew in not only all the major conservation groups — the Sierra Club, the Wilderness League, the World Wildlife Fund, and so on — but also an array of celebrities and mainstream brands. (During the 2005 skirmishes, Ben & Jerry’s produced a 900-pound Baked Alaska and had it carried on a litter of plywood and two-by-fours to Capitol Hill. “This is not going to last very long,” one of the company’s “flavor gurus” announced to a small crowd of protesters. “Just like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, if you drill up there.”)

After 2005, things quieted down some. When President Obama was elected in 2008, the Democrats took the Senate and the House as well. Notwithstanding Republicans’ call to “drill, baby, drill,” there was no legislative path forward for the pro-development side.

Early in 2015, Obama recommended that Congress designate the coastal plain, and other non-wilderness areas of ANWR, as wilderness. But that never happened, and as his term wound down, and the 2016 election loomed, people on both sides of the debate wondered if he would exercise his power to declare the area a national monument. He did not. Then came the 2016 election and the 2017 tax bill. The federal government shutdown in early 2019 delayed the commenting and review process for activity in the refuge, meaning that seismic exploration work originally planned for this winter will be held off a year. But the Bureau of Land Management still plans to hold ANWR’s first ever lease sale later this year.

The Gwich’in aren’t giving up yet. “We do have a power as a people,” James told me, “and I think we can stop it, or stall.” The hope is to stave off drilling at least until 2020, when a friendlier administration might win the next election. “Give us more time!” James added. “And maybe there might be changes. That’s what I’m hoping for.”

***

Nations

Here’s a generalization: While the Gwich’in, south of the calving grounds, have consistently spoken up against drilling in the calving grounds, the loudest voices from the Inupiat, who live along the northern edge of the coastal plain, have tended to support the idea of oil and gas development. It’s not quite that simple, of course. In Kaktovik, the closest community to the calving grounds, I found opinion about the issue to be roughly split down the middle. But the North Slope leadership has been vocal in its support of drilling. And while southern environmentalists, across the decades, have framed the fight as a question of pristine wilderness vs. human interference, pro-drilling Alaskans have made it a story about meddling southern activists versus northern communities in dire need of jobs and economic options.

In October 2017, the president of the Kaktovik Inupiat Corporation, Matthew Rexford, wrote an opinion piece for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner about the prospect of drilling in ANWR.

Alaskans and the oil and gas industry have fought unsuccessfully to open the 1002 area to drilling, which literally requires an act of Congress. At the same time, Lower 48 lawmakers, special interest groups across the country, folks and organizations around the world have waged war on the idea, citing the disruption of wildlife and the pristine Arctic environment.

As ANWR debates occur, the views of the Iñupiat who call the area home are oftentimes left out. The wishes of the people who live in and around the refuge’s coastal plain frequently are drowned out by people who live hundreds — even thousands — of miles away, many of whom have never bothered to set foot anywhere near the Arctic.

Rexford had a point. The Gwich’in aren’t the only people with a direct stake in the fate of the calving grounds. On Alaska’s north coast, the Inupiat people also harvest the Porcupine caribou on their annual migrations. And with their greater proximity to the oil itself, they’re the ones most likely to bear the brunt, or reap the rewards, of oil and gas development. One Inupiat village, Kaktovik, lies right on the edge of the 1002 area.

Rexford cited the same erasure that I’d often noticed being applied to the Gwich’in. But at the same time, his letter didn’t mention the caribou hunters on the other side of the Brooks Range at all — instead, the opponents of drilling were painted as outsiders, southerners.

The language around the conservation movement’s idea of “wilderness” so often implies an emptiness, an absence of humanity entirely — an erasure of the people who’ve been living in and with that wilderness all along. At the same time, the idea that only clueless southerners care about protecting ANWR entirely erases the consistent and unanimous resistance of the Gwich’in.

James and others told me, over and over: To them, this wasn’t a conservation issue. It was a human rights issue.

James and others told me, over and over: To them, this wasn’t a conservation issue. It was a human rights issue.

It’s also an international issue. In July 1987, the federal governments of Canada and the United States signed a bilateral treaty dedicated to the protection and conservation of the Porcupine caribou herd. That treaty remains in effect today, and several levels of Canadian government are watching the potential for oil development in ANWR warily.

The Yukon government’s current minister of the environment, Pauline Frost, is a Gwich’in woman from Old Crow, the fly-in Yukon community in the heart of the Porcupine herd’s range. (The Porcupine River that gives the herd its name runs right through town.) The hottest item in her portfolio right now is also personal: Frost took her first caribou at age 12, and she still hunts with her daughter when she’s at home. In an interview, Frost told me that she is in close touch with her counterparts in the Northwest Territories — also home to several communities that depend on the herd — as well as in Alaska, Ottawa, and Washington. “We are clearly concerned,” she told me. “We have an international agreement that we signed off on in good faith. … We are adamant that the agreement was signed for a purpose.”

In Old Crow, 32-year-old Dana Tizya-Tramm was recently voted in as the new chief of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation. A former elected councilor whose work for the First Nation was focused on the ANWR issue, he has a gift for analogy when he talks caribou and calving grounds.

“They’re pulling up blocks from underneath them in the Jenga tower that we sit on,” he told me back in the fall, sitting in a VGFN boardroom as the Arctic winter crept in outside the walls.

“The caribou, over 2.2 million years, have selected this area as their calving grounds. And we all know the deft hand that evolution works with. They’ve chosen this for a reason. … And if [developers] blindly go in there and start driving, blasting, and doing what they may, they can quite literally disrupt the ancient ecosystems that allowed for our very being in these lands in the first place.”

Tizya-Tramm was sympathetic to the position of people like Matthew Rexford in Kaktovik. But he sees oil development as a short-sighted option, rather than a longer term path to economic survival.

“What we’re coming to here is a real difference in perspective on what energy actually is,” he told me. “Man has yet to produce anything as renewable or as efficient as nature produces.”

Like cattle on the range, caribou are alchemists, weaving sunlight and inedible (to us) plant life into pounds and pounds of nutritious protein. And, Tizya-Tramm said, “We have a right to that. We have a right to continue our way of life that we have been enjoying far before they were even coming up with the written word. And if they come in here and they disturb that, then it shows their hubris because they’ll be trading cold fusion for a tank of gas. All you have to do is leave this area alone. That’s all you have to do. And this energy system will continue driving forward, feeding all of our people.”

***

Risk

It’s not just nuance that can get lost in this fight. Also sometimes lost in the wider discussion are the Porcupine caribou themselves, all 218,000 of them. On one side, the claim has been that the animals will be fine — that drilling can be achieved without disrupting their calving. On the other, drilling spells catastrophe for the herd. I called Mike Suitor, the Yukon government’s regional biologist for northern Yukon, where much of the Canadian portion of the Porcupine herd’s range lies, to find out more.

Suitor emphasized the herd’s role in the wider ecosystem. “They’re born to be eaten,” he told me. “They’re a major prey food on the landscape, they have a huge ecological role.” Bears, wolves, wolverines, golden eagles, and humans — just for a start — rely on them. Several thousand members of the herd are hunted on the Canadian side each year, where a modest road network and a handful of larger communities offer greater access, and far fewer — just several hundred — in roadless northern Alaska.

The herd today is healthy and in a growth phase of its natural cycle, but Suitor told me that it differs from the other Arctic herds in at least one key way: Rather than swinging wildly between boom and bust, the Porcupine herd grows slowly and declines slowly. “Unfortunately,” he said, “that also means that from a productivity standpoint, this herd, if it gets into a hole, it’s going to be very difficult for it to dig itself out.”

One point of comparison for the Porcupine herd is the impact of Alaska’s Red Dog mine on the Western Arctic herd — the mine is connected to a port on the coast by a 50-mile road through the wilderness. There, Suitor told me, a significant portion of the herd has been shown to be delaying or altering their migration to avoid the road.

On the role of the calving grounds, he was firm. “My professional opinion basically is that the herd needs to go where the herd needs to go. … We need to ensure that those habitats are available.” We just don’t know, he said, what the impact of large-scale industrial activity on a herd of this size and character will be. It’s that uncertainty that worries him. “Really, what this is about is risk. I think from a science standpoint, I think the risks are high. Because we really don’t know,” he said. “We don’t have information.”

He was clear, though, about one key consequence of a decline: fewer animals available for subsistence hunting. “If this herd is impacted, that’s what will be impacted — the harvest.”

In February 2019, a scientific report commissioned by the Canadian, Northwest Territories, and Yukon governments was released. It concluded that the U.S. government’s draft environmental impact statement for development on the coastal plain offered “little evidence” that industry and the caribou could safely coexist. If the naysayers are right, that would mean the Gwich’in would pay the highest price for development while reaping none of the rewards. The caribou hunters, and the people who rely on them, would be hit the hardest.

***

The Journalist and the Caribou Hunter

It’s impossible to talk about the struggle over the fate of the calving grounds without talking about the media. For 30 years, the Gwich’in have waged their David-versus-Goliath battle largely through the use of public attention. Together with their environmentalist allies, they have launched large-scale public education campaigns. They have traveled to Washington, D.C., elders and youth, to persuade far-away congresspeople that the refuge requires protection. They have worked with journalists and photographers to produce newspaper stories, magazine stories, glossy coffee-table books, rugged wilderness-adventure narratives, and more. Entire generations of conservation-minded writers have passed through the refuge and the communities that surround it, year after year, decade after decade.

I was keenly aware, as I trudged through the quiet streets of Arctic Village, and then Kaktovik, and then Old Crow, making awkward eye contact with strangers and being barked at by chained dogs, that in doing so I was just another ant in a journalistic colony, all of us marching in line, each in our turn.

I was keenly aware, as I trudged through the quiet streets of Arctic Village, and then Kaktovik, and then Old Crow, making awkward eye contact with strangers and being barked at by chained dogs, that in doing so I was just another ant in a journalistic colony, all of us marching in line, each in our turn.

In Arctic Village, where I vied for the locals’ attention alongside a half dozen visiting photographers and filmmakers, one elder ushered me into his home for an interview with a resigned sigh. “Let’s get this over with,” he said. In Old Crow, an older man that I’d never seen or spoken to before walked up to me on the riverbank and asked me how my interviews were going — although I had yet to turn on my recorder. Later, puzzling over the encounter, I wasn’t sure if he’d confused me with one of the other two youngish white female journalists that had flown into the community that week to report on the caribou, or if he had simply sized me up and assumed, correctly, what I was doing there.

As I made my rounds, knocking on doors, introducing myself, asking for interviews, scribbling notes, I felt my dual status keenly. For these people, I was both an imposition and a necessity. They would answer my questions about why the caribou matter, they would suffer my intrusions into their living rooms, my gazing at their family portraits, my minutely detailed notes about how they dressed, what they ate, where they lived – they would do it all, over and over again, in the name of their own survival.

“There isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for the refuge,” James told me once. But how exhausting it must be, I thought, to have to justify yourself over and over and over again. To put yourself on display and say: I deserve to live as I am. We deserve to survive. My culture deserves to exist.

***

Vadzaih

After the quick, calm birth on the coastal plain, after the wolves and the warble flies, after the bullet and the knife and the smoker or the freezer, the young caribou finds his way to the stove, the fire pit, the bowl, and the plate.

Last summer, I tried to see the calving for myself. I tried to see the hunt. I looked for live caribou in three different areas of the Porcupine herd’s range. I thought that seeing the animals traveling from birth to death, from the calving grounds to the crock pot, would help me understand the precise nature of the connection between them. This, I thought, was how I would understand what was truly at stake in the fight over ANWR.

For a number of reasons — late snow in the mountain passes before calving; fog on the Beaufort Sea in Kaktovik; plain bad luck elsewhere — I didn’t get to see either birth or death. But I did get to partake in the final piece of the journey. Over my days in Arctic Village, I ate caribou prepared a half dozen different ways. One afternoon, a woman I was visiting wrapped rice and nuggets of fat and kidney meat in foil and cooked the packet over a fire, then served a steaming portion to me in a bowl. On another evening, I snapped bite-size pieces off a thin slab of dry meat, dipping each one in butter before popping it into my mouth. I sat around a table with three generations of a local family as we all sliced small chunks of tender meat off a large boiled joint — these bites got dipped in mayo on their way to our mouths — and later that same night I ate caribou soup, hot and healing bone broth with rice and noodles, and a carrot if there was one to be had, tossed into the pot.

On my fifth day, I watched a woman thaw then skin a set of skinny frozen caribou legs. Once they were clean, she broke each one open on the sharp edge of her kitchen table, and the sound of the bones snapping made me shudder.

I sat around a table with three generations of a local family as we all sliced small chunks of tender meat off a large boiled joint — these bites got dipped in mayo on their way to our mouths — and later that same night I ate caribou soup, hot and healing bone broth with rice and noodles, and a carrot if there was one to be had, tossed into the pot.

The marrow came out easily, holding the remembered shape of the inner tube of the bone as it slid out onto the table. This, my hosts explained, was a treat — in the old times, it used to be the first thing the hunters would eat after a kill. They sliced off some small pieces for me, each one glistening a rich salmony red, like a nice piece of sashimi. I took a bite and felt the marrow sit cool and wet on my tongue — holding its shape, Jello-like, until I applied a bit of pressure. Then it dissolved, vanishing, and I chased it with a bite of steamed rice.

One night I returned to James’s house late to find a feast waiting for me and her other visitors on the kitchen table. She served us fried caribou, rice, and salad made with the only vegetables consistently available at the small village store — a mixture of peas, corn, and diced carrots from a can, dressed with mayo and spices. We finished off the meal with homemade fry bread, slightly sweet and studded with raisins, then one of James’s friends introduced us to akutuq “ice cream” — freshly picked salmonberries with whipped Crisco and sugar.

They sliced off some small pieces for me, each one glistening a rich salmony red, like a nice piece of sashimi. I took a bite and felt the marrow sit cool and wet on my tongue — holding its shape, Jello-like, until I applied a bit of pressure. Then it dissolved, vanishing, and I chased it with a bite of steamed rice.

Everything was delicious, but it also felt weighted with meaning. My days here had been filled with meals gleaned from our environment — from the wild-gathered leaves of the Labrador tea I’d been sipping within minutes of my arrival to the preparations of caribou to the berries I’d just eaten for dessert. The people here lived off caribou, first and foremost, but also moose and mountain sheep. They ate salmon, lake trout, whitefish, burbot, and pike. They ate ducks and geese, and muskrat, and the small fatty Arctic ground squirrel. They supplemented their wild foods with a few price-inflated essentials from the store: flour, rice, crackers, the odd can of mixed vegetables.

I had asked myself what was really at stake in the fight over the calving grounds, and this, I realized, was it. In 1992, in the wake of the Exxon Valdez disaster and the early legislative battles, the Yukon government had published a pamphlet titled, “What Is At Stake Is a Way of Life Thousands of Years Old.” That was intangible, though — it was hard for me to grasp. Here, on the table in front of me, was a tangible expression of the same assertion.

“We’re going to continue to live how we always lived, and survive,” James told me. “[We] went through a lot of starvation time before, so we might have to go through that [again].”

The only thing they could do, she said, was “to survive how we can survive, and continue to do the right thing. That’s a goal. There’s no other way. … The right thing to do is the one that’s going to win.”

***

Reporting for this story was supported by the UC Berkeley-11th Hour Food and Farming Journalism Fellowship.

Eva Holland is a writer and editor based in Canada’s Yukon Territory whose work we’ve featured on Longreads many times in the past. Visit her personal site at evaholland.com.

Editor: Krista Stevens
Fact-checker: Matt Giles
Copy editor: Jacob Gross