U.S. Arc­tic drilling plan spurs worry in Canada

Cari­bou calv­ing grounds could be af­fected

Saskatoon StarPhoenix - - CANADA - BOB WE­BER

The Cana­dian gov­ern­ment, two ter­ri­to­ries and sev­eral First Na­tions are ex­press­ing con­cerns to the United States over plans to open the calv­ing grounds of a large cross-bor­der cari­bou herd to en­ergy drilling, de­spite in­ter­na­tional agree­ments to pro­tect it.

“Canada is con­cerned about the po­ten­tial trans­bound­ary im­pacts of oil and gas ex­plo­ration and de­vel­op­ment planned for the Arc­tic Na­tional Wildlife Refuge Coastal Plain,” says a let­ter from En­vi­ron­ment Canada to the Alaska of­fice of the U.S. Bureau of Land Man­age­ment.

Yukon and the North­west Ter­ri­to­ries have sub­mit­ted sim­i­lar con­cerns as the ad­min­is­tra­tion of U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump drafts plans to study the en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact of sell­ing ex­plo­ration leases on the eco­log­i­cally rich plain.

“Much of the wildlife that in­hab­its the ... refuge is shared with Canada,” says the N.W.T.’S let­ter to the U.S. “The con­ser­va­tion of these trans­bound­ary shared re­sources is very im­por­tant to Indige­nous groups.”

The Por­cu­pine herd is one of the few re­main­ing healthy cari­bou pop­u­la­tions in the North and a cru­cial re­source for Indige­nous peo­ple.

Canada says the cari­bou are cov­ered by one of four dif­fer­ent in­ter­na­tional agree­ments — in­clud­ing two over po­lar bears and one for mi­gra­tory birds — that com­mit the U.S. to pre­serve the area. At least three diplo­matic notes have passed be­tween the two coun­tries over the is­sue.

Canada wants as­sur­ances from the U.S. about the con­tent of the en­vi­ron­men­tal study. The N.W.T. is ask­ing that hear­ings be held in Cana­dian Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties that de­pend on the herd.

It’ll be tough, said Bobbi Jo Green­land Mor­gan, head of the Gwich’in Tribal Coun­cil.

“We’re not deal­ing with the same gov­ern­ment we’ve been deal­ing with for the past 30 years,” she said.

In De­cem­ber, the U.S. re­leased a draft en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact study pro­posal for the lease sale with a pub­lic com­ment pe­riod un­til Feb. 11.

The stakes are high for the nar­row strip of land along the cen­tral Alaskan coast. The Por­cu­pine herd num­bers 218,000 and is grow­ing. Green­land Mor­gan said the an­i­mals are a reg­u­lar source of food for her peo­ple.

“We prob­a­bly have (cari­bou) at least once or twice a week.”

Adult cari­bou can co­ex­ist with de­vel­op­ment, but sci­en­tists have shown they avoid any dis­tur­bance on their calv­ing grounds.

“Canada is par­tic­u­larly con­cerned that oil and gas ex­plo­ration and de­vel­op­ment will neg­a­tively af­fect the long-term re­pro­duc­tive suc­cess of the Por­cu­pine cari­bou herd,” says the fed­eral let­ter.

The U.S. is aware of that pos­si­bil­ity.

“Po­ten­tial im­pacts, par­tic­u­larly those re­lat­ing to changes in calv­ing dis­tri­bu­tion and calf sur­vival, are ex­pected to be more in­tense for the (Por­cu­pine herd) be­cause of their lack of pre­vi­ous ex­po­sure to oil­field de­vel­op­ment,” says the draft plan.

It also points out the herd’s im­por­tance to Cana­dian First Na­tions and ac­knowl­edges they take about 85 per cent of the an­nual har­vest.

“These Cana­dian com­mu­ni­ties would be among the most likely to ex­pe­ri­ence po­ten­tial in­di­rect im­pacts.”

Craig Mach­tans of the Cana­dian Wildlife Ser­vice rep­re­sents Canada on an in­ter­na­tional com­mit­tee that man­ages the Por­cu­pine herd. He said he has a good re­la­tion­ship with his coun­ter­part in Alaska.

“He does keep me in­formed,” Mach­tans said.

But the ties aren’t what they were.

The U.S. rep­re­sen­ta­tive used to come from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice. The cur­rent mem­ber is from the Depart­ment of the In­te­rior.

“He has a dif­fer­ent man­date,” said Mach­tans. “I’m not sure it’s the same re­la­tion­ship.”

Of­fi­cials at Global Af­fairs Canada say the U.S. is liv­ing up to the agree­ment on the Por­cu­pine herd. Amer­i­can of­fi­cials were not avail­able for com­ment due to a par­tial gov­ern­ment shut­down in that coun­try.

Mach­tans said Canada has no spe­cial sta­tus as the U.S. con­sid­ers pub­lic in­put on the draft.

“We’re not in the in­ner cir­cle,” he said. “We’re par­tic­i­pat­ing as mem­bers of the pub­lic.”

In­ter­na­tional law pro­fes­sor Michael By­ers said the U.S. may have al­ready bro­ken a clause in the agree­ment that com­mits both par­ties to con­sult­ing the other be­fore a fi­nal de­ci­sion is made on any­thing that af­fects the herd’s fu­ture.

“There’s an obli­ga­tion to con­sult that isn’t be­ing im­ple­mented right now,” By­ers said.

NATHAN DENETTE / THE CANA­DIAN PRESS FILES

Cari­bou can co­ex­ist with de­vel­op­ment, but sci­en­tists say they avoid any dis­tur­bance on their calv­ing grounds. A key Arc­tic tract is be­ing eyed by U.S. en­ergy in­ter­ests.

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