This week’s vote by Democrats in the U.S. House against opening the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling was disappointing but unsurprising.
Those trying to block the long-awaited ANWR lease sale expected later this year were bowing to the knee-jerk drilling opponents in the environmental community.
Those folks have fought against opening the area to leasing for years despite ample evidence that its all-important caribou herd is unlikely to be harmed by oil and gas industry activity. If past experience is a good indicator, and it certainly should be, the caribou are more likely to thrive — as they have at nearby Prudhoe Bay.
Wildlife studies by the late naturalist Angus Gavin indicated that the Central Arctic caribou herd, the animals that traditionally calve in the tundra around the Prudhoe Bay field area, increased ten-fold in the years after the discovery in 1968.
Gavin was a high-level expert at Ducks Unlimited of Canada at the time of the discovery and was retained by ARCO Chairman Robert O. Anderson to study the impact of industry operations on the environment and its fish and wildlife. Anderson was a duck hunter and lover of the outdoors.
When I went to work for ARCO in 1969 one of my first assignments was to support Angus Gavin and provide him anything he needed to conduct his studies. He reported only to Robert O. Anderson and I was his primary point of contact within the company.
One of the first things Angus wanted — and got — was an airplane to fly wherever he wanted to develop reliable estimates on wildlife numbers in the field area and beyond. I forget what kind of airplane he got, but I do remember that like all other charters used by the company, it had two engines and two pilots. And since he had extra seats, Angus offered them to state biologists working for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game who expressed interest in his work. He also told the pilots to fly wherever he and the two state experts wanted to go.
When Angus first did his counts, he and the state biologists determined that there were less than 2,000 caribou in the field area. And, to the surprise of a great many people, the number grew tenfold in the years after the discovery. It grew even larger in subsequent years before settling back to a large but normal size. In 2016 the count was approximately 22,000 animals.
Angus said the herd thrived in the presence of the oil drillers and their support crews because people working in the oilfield were under strict orders to avoid unfavorable impacts on the field’s wildlife. And since he and his colleagues had considerable clout with senior management, those orders were generally carried out to the letter. Failure to do so was cause for discharge and a quick trip off the Slope.
But the most important reason for the herd’s size increase was that the caribou learned they could take shelter in the tundra around industry facilities. Angus said the greatest threat to caribou survival was predation by wolves and bears while the animals were having their calves.
And since the wolves and bears tended to shy away from human activities, the caribou were actually better protected during their calving time than they had ever been before. That was presumably bad news for the predators but the caribou thrived and their numbers increased greatly.
Those who oppose oil exploration in the Alaskan Arctic cite concerns about caribou as one of their big worries. It is a shame that drilling opponents are still able to wave the panic flag in such matters and politicians bow to the environmental extremists.
It’s an argument that somehow never ends.