Mining and outside hunters cause concern for Western Arctic Caribou Herd

 Development of roads and hunting permits for outsiders generated the most discussion among members of the Western Arctic Caribou Herd Working Group during their annual meeting held December 14 and 15 in Anchorage.
The two-day meeting brought together representatives from six geographic areas within western Alaska that encompass 24 Native villages, subsistence and sport hunters, hunting guides, reindeer herders, state and federal biologists and land managers. Alaska legislators and representatives of Trilogy Metals Inc. also made presentations to the group.  
The purpose of the working group is to ensure the long term conservation of the Western Arctic caribou herd and the ecosystem on which it depends, by combining indigenous knowledge and western science to guide regulations and permitted activities that could impact the health of the herd.
Since its establishment in 1997, a majority of the group’s recommendations have focused on hunting regulations and conservation actions, such as reducing the number of animals allowed per hunt, and restrictions on air traffic over active migration routes, to keep the caribou migration strong and of adequate number.
The hot topics to close out 2017 and lead into 2018 centered on mineral extraction and disturbance of herds from airplanes transporting hunters from outside Alaska or the immediate communities or incidences of accidental take due to confusion over hunting unit boundaries.
Disturbances such as these are of greater concern since numbers of caribou declined sharply from almost 500,000 in the early 2,000s to just over 200,000 in 2016.
Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists say they are cautiously optimistic about the overall health of the Western Arctic caribou herd as data from the most recent aerial surveys indicate that more young caribou are surviving and fewer adults are dying. The results of the July 2017 photo census survey are expected to be published soon, according to Fish and Game biologists, but they say it’s still too early to say what impact these changes will have overall.
Near the end of day one Rep. Dean Westlake (D-Kiana) provided an update to the working group on the bill he introduced in April on the House side of the Alaska Legislature, HB 211, that requires a nonresident to be accompanied by a guide or resident spouse or relative when hunting certain caribou including Porcupine, Central Arctic and Western Arctic herds.
 “People from other areas don’t realize the disruption and damage they bring from inadvertently taking an animal in a closed area,” Westlake explained.
“Since 89 percent of guides are [Alaskans] they live it, and know the villages need to put food on the table,” he added.
Some supportive members of the group thought this would help reduce conflicts between users. They felt that registered guides will be held accountable for mistakes while a transporter who drops a non-resident off and that person wanders into the wrong area to hunt will not.
Others were concerned that the restriction would significantly reduce the amount of money that the state receives from nonresidents who add to the economy with their spending on licenses, transportation, lodging and other associated purchases.  
Westlake explained that counterparts in Canada are already successfully managing similar restriction with results that mean less accidental take of caribou from areas that are only open to residences for necessary subsistence hunts or cases of wasting of meat by disrespectful nonresidents hunting for the sport or the rack but not skilled on field dressing and packing out of the caribou.
The bill passed with a 21 to 19 vote in the House but has yet to be taken up on the Senate side. Westlake expressed hope that the bill would become law in 2018.
Day two discussions focused heavily on mining projects and mineral extraction within the western herd’s range. Vancouver, British Columbia based Trilogy Metals president and CEO, Rick Van Nieuwenhuyse addressed the group to provide an update of his company’s exploration activities and permitting process for an access road to the mine.
The 211-mile industrial road would lead from the Dalton Highway near Fairbanks through the foothills of the Brooks Mountain Rang and across the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve to the Ambler Mining District.
The road, company officials say, is the next step in advancing exploration and gearing up to extract what has been characterized as one of the largest undeveloped copper-zinc mineral belts in the world. While the area has been explored for decades lack of transportation infrastructure has long stymied actual development of mineral resources.  
Company officials and the Bureau of Land Management, the lead federal agency, among several working on required environmental reviews, say the road is currently considered only for industrial use and not open for public access.
Despite these assurances, members of the working group expressed concerns that use of the road would ultimately be open to the public and extended all the way up to the northern and western most parts of the region. Members of the working group debated on whether to take a formal vote for or against the road, or ask for more information as the review process continues.
“It’s like the old western movies with cowboys with guns and Indians with bow and arrow,” working group representative from Kotzebue, Cyrus Harris said. “We’re going to try to stop them but the cowboys are going to win and that road will go through no matter what. We always lose whether we stand together or not. It will affect that whole area and go to all the villages. We’ll see a future that I hope it doesn’t happen – but I told my kids the road will happen one day and it’ll connect all the way to Kotzebue.”
William Bernhardt, representing the Upper Kobuk River area countered that his community, which sits nearest the proposed road shouldn’t suffer because people who don’t want it don’t live in the region. “l’d like to see life a little easier for us,” Bernhardt said. “It’s tough up there, hard to get fuel and expensive to get home goods in.”
Representatives from BLM stressed during this discussion period that no decision has been made on the road permit and that is why it’s important to hear the group’s concerns now to help them make the best decision.
Tim Fullman, representing the conservationist groups, reminded members that they have an obligation to make their views heard. “We are charged by people we represent and all we can do is do our responsibility to inform that decision even if that decision seems inevitable,” Fullman said.
Tom Gray, from White Mountain, and voting member of the working group representing reindeer herders stressed the importance to BLM and other federal officials in the audience to make a more concerted effort to reach out to those communities like his that will be impacted by road projects and conflicts between caribou user groups.
“I struggle when an agency gets up in front of the public and says ‘I have a website you can go to look at all if it.’ Give me a break. My 90-year-old aunt is not going to understand what you’re saying, let alone get on a website. You need to go to the villages,” Gray commented.
Ultimately the working group voted to take no formal action for or against the road permit. Members agreed that there will be more opportunities during the scoping process to revisit the discussion and define a position.
BLM plans to continue scoping meetings and public hearings on the proposed road through 2018 with a draft Environmental Impact Statement released by March 2019 and a final EIS in December 2019. The National Park Service is also working on a separate environmental analysis of the project that will pass through 26 miles of park land.

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