Caribou at Aichilik River Drainage, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska, June 2001
Copyright 2003, Roddy Scheer
With temperatures sinking lower than —60 degrees Fahrenheit and the sun never rising in winter months, it"s a wonder indeed that the lands of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge teem with animal life. The profusion of wildlife activity in summer months have led many observers to call the area "America"s Serengeti."
The most famous and abundant mammalian inhabitants are 120,000+ members of the Porcupine River caribou herd, who migrate more than 800 miles every spring from wintering grounds in the Canadian Yukon to the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge to give birth to as many as 50,000 calves, usually in early June.
Thousands of years of evolution have prepared the caribou — the northernmost contingent of the deer family—to survive despite the harsh Arctic chill of the winter months, the insect infestations of summertime, and the year-round threat of predation by wolves, bears, eagles, wolverines, lynx, and, of course, humans.
Despite the harsh conditions, though, the caribou have managed to survive through the millennia, unlike their migratory brethren to the south, the Great Plains buffalo. This begs the question of how the caribou have been able to survive. The only answer which science has been able to provide is that the caribou have not had to contend with the one environmental ill which has trampled more species than any other in history: habitat loss. Simply put, few human beings can stand to live in, let alone visit, the harsh and uninviting home range of the caribou, allowing the species to make its own way without the disturbances of overhunting, heavy machinery, concrete, office parks, and subdivisions.
The Arctic National Wildlife Range was created in Alaska’s remote northeast corner in 1960 to protect the vital calving grounds of the Porcupine River caribou herd. In 1980, President Carter signed into law legislation doubling the size of the protected lands and adding them to the national wildlife refuge system. Today, President George W. Bush is advocating for oil drilling right in the caribou’s calving grounds despite the land’s status as a wildlife refuge.
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