The Politics of Migration

Albert Peter, Chairman, Porcupine Caribou Management Board

Presented to the Northern Foreign Policy Conference, Ottawa, April 30, 1994


"I must say that while I lose and, I hope, lose graciously, I certainly have great admiration for those who fought the fight. The environmental groups, I must say, wrote the textbook on how to defeat a bill [such as] this..." With these words Senator Benn et Johnston, Chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and one of the most powerful politicians in America, conceded defeat in the bitterest environmental battle of the 1980's and closed the latest chapter in the long political history of the Porcupine Caribou Herd.

Back in 1991, as a last ditch effort to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil development, the oil lobby, backed by the Bush Administration, added an Arctic Refuge development amendment to the National Energy Security Act - a bill President Bush had long been promising to shape the United States Energy Policy and one he desperatley wanted to pass before running for his second term. In fact, President Bush had threatened to veto any Energy Bill that did not contain Arctic Refuge development. But he and his colleagues were defeated first on the Senate floor and ultimatley in the national election.

At the centre of this battle was the Porcupine Caribou Herd - a migratory wildlife population that symbolized all of the best that the Arctic Refuge had to offer. The predicted demise of this herd and the aboriginal cultures that would go down with it wer e acknowledged as the key factor in tipping the scales toward environmental protection for the '1002' lands and hence the defeat of the Senate energy bill amendment.

Two years later, and 14 years after the Arctic Refuge was created, the fate of the Porcupine Caribou Herd and its implications for the northern foreign policies of both Canada and the United States remain as unfinished business. In order to appreciate the recommendations of this paper concerning the future path that both nations should follow, it is first necessary to appreciate the ecology, cultural significance and politiacl history of the Porcupine Caribou Herd.


The Porcupine Caribou Herd (PCH) is a population of about 160,000 barren-ground caribou that inhabits a range extending from northeastern Alaska across the north Yukon to the MacKenzie Delta in the Northwest Territories.

From winter ranges in all three areas, it migrates northward to the Beaufort Sea coast in late winter and early spring. When snow conditions are favourable, the pregnant cows congregate on the coastal plain of the North Slope mainly in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In less favourable years, many caribou may be diverted to the Ivvavik National Park where they will calve.

Regardless of whether calving is mainly in the Refuge or more scattered along the North Slope, the caribou all congregate shortly thereafter on the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge. For the remainder of the summer, the caribou meander back and forth between the north Yukon and adjacent Alaska remaining above treeline until fall snowstorms initiate the southward migrations.

The location of the caribou when the snow comes will determine their initial movements southward but the fall migration may halt and even reverse or take different routes each year depending on the weather.

Eventually, the caribou reach their winter ranges by late fall where they may remain or they may move on to other winter ranges later depending on snow conditions.


As the caribou depends on the land, so do the people rely on the caribou. For countless generations caribou have provided the many villages along it's migration route with all that is necessary; food, material for clothing, shelter and tools. So central i s the caribou to our way of life, that the very culture of aboriginal people is interwoven with the life-cycle of the herd. Indeed the name Gwitchin means 'caribou people'.

Many of our children have grown up in a subsistence lifestyle, and, as well, they have been educated by the stories told around the campfire. They have not only been taught the ways of the caribou, but are also trained in the traditional way of life on th e land: living in harmony with nature and fulfilling the-responsibilities that have been bestowed upon us - to ensure that the future generations will be blessed with the abundance that we enjoy. It is our responsibility to protect the land so that the caribou can continue their life cycle. This in turn will ensure the survival of our way of life. We depend upon the caribou and the land for our existence - the land and caribou depend on us.


Little more than a hundred years ago, the Porcupine Caribou Range knew no political boundaries. To be sure, many First Nations utilized the herd but each operated independently as far as the caribou were concerned.

In 1887 a border was surveyed between Alaska and the Yukon which effectively split the range of the Porcupine Caribou Herd in half. Thereafter, the herd was managed separately by Canada and the United States for the next 100 years.

The Arctic National Wildlife Range 1960

Although the Porcupine Caribou Herd was heavily utilized during the whaling era, no other significant threat to its existence occurred until the second world war when the U.S. Government began to investigate the oil potential of the Alaskan North Slope. I t is one of the great paradoxes of the north that, initially, experts believed oil deposits were concentrated in western Alaska whereas, in fact, the major deposits lay further to the east. Thus, in the 1950's, when it was first proposed for wilderness st atus, the Porcupine Caribou Range was considered by the industry as worthless ground.

Through persistent lobbying in the late 1950's, Alaskan naturalists, Olaus and Margaret Murie, succeeded in convincing the U.S.Congress to establish the Arctic National Wildlife Range in 1960 - a year after Alaska gained statehood. The Arctic National Wil dlife Range encompassed the Alaskan calving grounds of the Porcupine Caribou Herd thus providing the first legislated protection of the herd's most important habitat.

Prudhoe Bay 1968

Meanwhile as the Wildlife Range was being negotiated, the oil industry was progressively working its way eastward as their explorations failed to yield significant finds. By 1968, the Atlantic Richfield Company was preparing to pull out of Prudhoe Bay whe n the company President, Robert 0. Anderson received a request from the field to drill just one more test well. He gave the okay and Prudhoe Bay became the largest oil field in American history.

Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Enquiry 1977

Oil interest in Canada's Mackenzie Delta and the possibility of a pipeline up the Mackenzie Valley to southern markets prompted the Canadian Government to conduct a series of hearings in the Mackenzie Valley communities to assess the impact of such develo pment on the aboriginal cultures of the region. The hearings, held by Judge Thomas Berger, first brought to light the need for better protection of the PCH and its habitats.

Order-in-Council Withdrawal 1978

Following on the heels of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry, the Canadian Government issued a Withdrawal Order for the region of the Yukon north of the Porcupine River. This order was designed to prohibit industrial activity in the area until a manage ment plan could be developed in conjunction with aboriginal land claim settlements. The original area encompassed most of the summer range of the Porcupine Caribou Herd in the Yukon, including calving grounds which are used when the herd cannot reach Alas ka. The order still stands but has been reduced in extent as various lands have been redesignated according to agreements with First Nations.

The Withdrawal Order was therefore the first legislated area in Canada that served to protect key habitats of the Porcupine Caribou Herd from disturbance.

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge 1980

Arising from the Alaska Native Land Claims Settlement Act of 1971 came the concept of Alaska's 'national-interest lands' - that is, wilderness areas in the state that could be set aside in the interest of the United States as a whole. However, a bill to d o so was not introduced until 1977 and was narrowly passed at the very end of President Carter's term in 1980. The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) more than doubled the size of the Arctic National Wildlife Range which was renamed the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This legislation preserved an even greater portion of the Porcupine Caribou Herd's range but left vulnerable the North Slope where the herd calves most often.

Section '1002' of ANILCA set the North Slope portion of the Refuge aside from full wilderness designation and instructed the U.S.Department of the Interior to undertake a resource assessment of the region including its oil bearing potential, wildlife inve ntories and predictions of impacts from various development scenarios on the wildlife populations.

Thus, the expansion of the Refuge turned out to be a mixed blessing as far as the Porcupine Caribou Herd was concerned.

Ivvavik National Park 1984

In 1984, after more than a decade of negotiations, the Inuvialuit and the Canadian Government concluded the second Land Claim Settlement in the history of the nation. The Inuvialuit Final Agreement provided for the establishment of the Northern Yukon Nati onal Park (later renamed Ivvavik National Park) adjacent to the Arctic Refuge. 'Ivvavik' is an Inuvialuit word meaning, 'a place for giving birth to and raising young, a nursery' and was created primarily to protect the calving grounds of the Porcupine Ca ribou Herd in Canada.

Vuntut National Park 1993

Perhaps the longest Land Claim negotiation in Canadian history involves the Council for Yukon Indians and the Canadian Government which have been at the table for more than 20 years. Although this settlement has yet to be proclaimed, certain elements have been preimplemented.

On July 16, 1993 the Hon. Monique Landry, Secretary of State and Minister of Communications and Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation Chief, Robert Bruce Jr. announced the establishment of Vuntut National Park according to the terms of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Na tion Final Agreement. Of particular importance to the Vuntut Gwitchin is the Old Crow Flats Region which elders referred to at the Berger hearings as their 'bank account'. Vuntut National Park was created primarily to protect Old Crow Flats but it and the adjacent special management area to the east also covers important summer ranges of the Porcupine Caribou Herd in Canada.



At present the summer ranges and key habitats of the Porcupine Caribou Herd are covered by a patchwork of protected areas which, in effect, represents the most intact and diverse arctic ecosystem in North America. Ultimately, this patchwork could be stitc hed together into an Ecosystem Refuge through the process known as 'twinning' in Canada and 'sister association' in the United States.

Twinning would not only provide lasting protection for this peerless ecosystem but would also encourage cooperation and coordination in the conservation and management of transboundary wildlife, as well as the establishment of equivalent environmental pro tection for the whole region.

Precedents for such arrangements between Canada and the United States already exist such as, St. Elias Mountain Parks World Heritage Site which includes Kluane National Park and Tatshenshini - Alsek Provincial Wilderness Park in Canada plus Wrangel St. El ias National Park and Reserve and Glacier Bay National Park in the United States. The first such international arrangement is a Biosphere Reserve involving Waterton National Park (Canada) and Glacier National Park (United States). The origins of this association date back to 1932 when both nations recognized their respective parks with international status.

World Heritage and/or Biosphere Reserve status should be accorded to the Arctic Refuge/Ivvavik/Vuntut complex plus the peripheral special management zones. International cooperative agreements for the management of waterfowl, polar bears and Porcupine Car ibou already exist for this region and 'twinning' would be the final touch that ties everything together.

Canada should therefore pursue an active policy of initiating a joint cooperative agreement with the United States to create an international ecosystem refuge in the north Yukon and adjacent Alaska.

'1002' Wilderness Designation

Although amalgamation of the national parks and protected areas of the North Slope would be a significant environmental achievement, there remains one major impediment to the creation of a full fledged arctic ecosystem refuge.

When, through ANILCA (1980), the U.S. Congress created the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, an impasse on the status of the coastal plain was compromised in section '1002' of the bill which directed the U.S.Department of the Interior to assess the petrole um potential of the area and predict the impacts of oil development on the wildlife populations of the North Slope.

Although the Interior Department's report was released in l987, the U.S.Congress has still not decided the fate of the '1002' lands due to extreme controversy over the impacts of development on wildlife and particularly on the Porcupine Caribou Herd which the report stated would experience 'major effects'.

This report and many subsequent publications have, in effect, acknowledged that the '1002' section is the heart of the Refuge and most definitely the 'heart' of the Porcupine Caribou Herd. This has recently been confirmed by the International Porcupine Ca ribou Board which, in its report on the sensitive habitats of the Porcupine Caribou herd states, " The calving period received the highest ranking of all time periods...and no alternative habitats are apparently available."

Clearly, protection of the '1002' section of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is crucial to the future conservation of this entire ecosystem. Such protection can only be afforded by passage of a bill in the U.S.Congress to grant full wilderness designa tion to the '1002' section of the Refuge.

The 1980 ANILCA bill required full consultation with Canada on matters affecting transboundary wildlife and in its response to the Department of Interior's 1987 Resource Assessment, Canada recommended full wilderness designation for the '1002' area. This position was reaffirmed in the Government's 1992 response to a report from its Standing Committee's on Aboriginal Affairs and Environment respectively.

Canada's future policy on this matter should maintain consistency with the its past position, which has only been reinforced by subsequent scientific studies, and this position should be communicated to the United States through appropriate channels.


The northern foreign policy of every nation will always be contingent upon the big "E's" - Energy and Environment plus the impacts on indigenous cultures which often span modern political boundaries. With respect to the Porcupine Caribou Herd and other tr ansboundary species that share the ecoregion of the north Yukon and adjacent Alaska, Canada's foreign policy should acknowledge the concerns shared by the United States for this caribou population and the indigenous peoples who depend upon it. Such concer ns should include cyclical economic impacts, social impacts on indigenous peoples and long term environmental impacts - aspects that are often treated superficially or not at all in assessing the adequacy of protection for wildlife and their habitats.

Given our perceptions of environmental stability and sustainable development, environmental stability must always determine what development activities are permissible, especially where aboriginal cultures are also at risk. In exceptional cases, where wil derness and cultural values are of the highest order, permanent protection may be the best solution.

Where opportunities exist to realize this vision, they must be fully embraced. Creation of an ecosystem refuge on the arctic coastal plain of Alaska and adjacent Canada is just such an opportunity. The groundwork for this association has already been esta blished with the Migratory Bird Protocol, the Polar Bear Management Plan, and the International Porcupine Caribou Conservation Agreement.

The combination of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Ivvavik National Park, Vuntut National Park, and the special management and protected areas associated with them could easily constitute a virtually intact arctic ecosystem refuge without peer in Nor th America. Such an association could be achieved through 'twinning' of these areas and this solution has been consistently recommended by the Canadian Government ever since its formal response to the U.S.Department of the Interior's 1987 Arctic Coastal P lain Resource Assessment.

In light of the mutual concern among polar nations for the future of arctic ecosystems, as set forth in the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy, Canada's northern foreign policy should reflect the principles and aspirations of this strategy by inviti ng the United States to undertake a joint agreement to protect and manage their respective parks as an ecosystem refuge. Such an undertaking must also involve the First Nations on both sides of the border whose lands and legislation pertain to the area. T he resulting arrangement would thus stand as one of the finest achievements of international cooperation in the spirit of the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy and Aboriginal Land Claim Settlements both of which acknowledge the interdependence of t he land and the people and the hope for future generations.