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Arctic Ocean vs. ANWR: Is wildlife refuge last hope for polar bears?

Alex DeMarban
Joe Kaleak, Sr fixes a harpoon at his house. His son George Kaleak, Sr. caught the first whale of the year the day before. September 6, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Shell and other oil companies are embarking on offshore oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic. Meantime, the coastal plain in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge remains off limits to oil drilling.
Aaron Jansen illustration
Isabel Kanayurak serves whale meat at a feast celebrating the first whale of the year in Kaktovik. September 6, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Children play with an iPad at the feast celebrating Kaktovik's first whale of the year. September 6, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Eddie Rexford pauses while butchering a Bowhead whale head on the beach in Kaktovik. September 6, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Polar bears approach Karl Brower as he butchers a whale on the beach in Kaktovik. September 6, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Polar bears play on the beach in Kaktovik. September 6, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Kaktovik residents butcher a whale head on the beach in Kaktovik. September 6, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Eddie Rexford butchering a bowhead whale head on the beach in Kaktovik. September 6, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
From left, Eddie Rexford, Karl Brower, and Jonas Mackenzie butcher a bowhead whale head on the beach in Kaktovik. September 6, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Kaktovik residents butcher and distribute meat from a 44' bowhead whale, the first harvest of the year. September 6, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Polar bears chase off a dog that escaped from its owner in Kaktovik. The village has one of the largest concentrations of polar bears in the world. September 9, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Children celebrate the first successful whale hunt of the year atop a 44' Bowhead whale in Kaktovik on September 5, 2012.
Courtesy Dania Moss
Sims store is one of three small stores in Kaktovik, offering an array of canned and frozen foods, but hardly any fresh items, and what they do offer is very expensive. September 8, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Kaktovik residents begin butchering a 44' Bowhead whale on September 5, 2012.
Courtesy Dania Moss
The village of Kaktovik, on Alaska's North Slope, is the only permanent settlement in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge's special 1002 area, where there is great oil and gas potential. September 10, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Charles Brower, Jr helps butcher Kaktovik's first whale of the year. September 6, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Rev. Mary Ann Warden, second from right, leads her congregation in worship at the Kaktovik Presbyterian Church. They sing in both English and Inupiaq. September 9, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Women cut muktuk, or whale skin and blubber, for a feast celebrating Kaktovik's first whale of the year. September 6, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Issac Akootchook, 90 years old, walks home after church in Kaktovik. September 9, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Family and community members gather at the house of Joe Kaleak for a feast celebrating Kaktovik's first whale of the year. September 6, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
A new subdivision on the outskirts of Kaktovik looks into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge's 1002 coastal plain. September 10, 2012
Loren Holmes photo

KAKTOVIK, Alaska -- After a whaling crew landed a 44-foot bowhead earlier this month, the village's first of the year, whalers worked through the night carving the black giant into pieces. By the next day, one third of the whale lay in pieces on a tarp on the ground outside a crew captain's house, like a bunch of macabre lawn ornaments. It was being divided for upcoming festivals: Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Nalukataq, the spring whaling festival.

Rivulets of rainwater and blood flowed downhill from the tarp. Men in rain jackets sliced the meat with long-handled knives and stepped amid blobs of beet-red kidney as big as bean-bag chairs for kids. Slabs of blubber like pink-and-black suitcases lay elsewhere. Off to the side were seven-foot-long ribs dangling with red flesh.

"Jesus Christ, what are we, the Flintstones?" joked Wayne Kayotuk, a boat captain for one of the village's six crews.

In a garage, ladies in smocks stirred huge pots of whale meat that billowed steam and the oily smell of whale. Scores of visitors trickled in and out of the house, some carting home gallon-sized Ziploc bags of freshly cooked meat.

"Everyone in the village is welcome when a whale is caught," said one of the cooks as tourists and journalists filtered into the living room of Joe Kaleak Sr.

It's a tradition that's continued for generations in this island community on the far northern edge of North America, and one villagers hope to never lose.

MORE: SPECIAL SERIES ON ARCTIC vs. ANWR

The Kaleak II crew landed the whale just days before Royal Dutch Shell would begin laying the groundwork to punch the first oil well in the Beaufort Sea's federal waters in 19 years. This week, the oil giant began positioning a floating drill rig called the Kulluk over a site 70 miles northwest of this Iñupiat Eskimo town.

Meanwhile, the nation is moving further away from comparatively safer, land-based oil drilling on the coastal plain of the 19-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), the so-called “1002” area out the village's back door.

Staunch resistance from environmental groups has ensured that the refuge remains a shrine to nature, despite federal estimates that say the plain holds up to 16 billion barrels of oil. Though only about 1,700 travelers visit the refuge each year, it's been off limits to wildcatters for decades. In effect, that's also locked out royalties to state, federal and local governments and eliminated jobs that would employ villagers and outsiders alike.

Campaigns that have successfully stopped Congress from permitting drilling in the coastal plain have long centered on the caribou of the Porcupine herd, which relies on the refuge for bearing or feeding calves. But polar bears may increasingly rely on the coastal area as the Arctic continues to warm, giving conservationists another potential weapon to end the long-running debate over drilling.

A rare view on the world

Kaktovik's 250 residents have a unique take on the oil industry. It dates back to an earlier era of offshore drilling in the Beaufort that ended in 1993, when Shell, ConocoPhillips and others pulled up stakes as the price of oil plummeted and Arctic exploration became too costly.

During that first round of drilling, community leaders put together something of a position-paper about the village called, "In This Place." It blasts the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the refuge, with this message: 'Oil companies might do more for the village than the federal government ever did.'

The refuge gets dubbed a "nasty bucket of eels" foisted on the community by Congress under President Jimmy Carter in 1980. That year, the federal government turned a chunk of Alaska into a wilderness park. And the refuge swallowed up Kaktovik, the only community within its boundaries.

The village corporation representing the village's Native shareholders, the Kaktovik Iñupiat Corp., owns about 100,000 acres of traditional land in the refuge. It can build hotels on its land, if enough tourists ever came this far north to fill up new ones. But it can't tap it for oil and gas.

"Not only did somebody forget to tell us we were Russian and then America, which we have been able to ignore or to deal with, but now, they have made us into a wildlife refuge, which we cannot ignore," reads the paper.

"Moreover, they then decided, without telling us, that most of that refuge was something called wilderness, meaning, as we read the dictionary, that nobody lives there. And since we do, we were apparently declared nonexistent," it continues.

Village of varying views

But that was years ago, and the booklet is no blanket statement from the whole community. Many residents would love to put a stake through the heart of the idea of oil exploration anywhere near their home -- on land or in the ocean -- and they're not afraid to say so.

They fear a spill in the Beaufort Sea -- called unlikely by federal regulators -- would ravage the bowhead whales that feed the village through the year. And on land, pipelines, roads and processing centers would threaten the caribou, sheep and other animals villagers hunt in the refuge.

Map of Alaska's North Slope, including Kaktovik and ANWR

The resistence to coastal drilling comes despite the promise of money that would flow to the village if oil were found on corporation land, where the only well in the refuge was drilled in the mid-1980s under a special exemption from Congress. What Chevron and BP found in the so-called “KIC well” has long been a closely guarded secret.

The benefits of oil money are already apparent in every Kaktovik home, thanks to revenues from Prudhoe Bay. The North Slope Borough, the largest local government in the U.S., has collected billions of dollars over the decades taxing pipelines and other oil-patch facilities. That's meant flush toilets and running water in Kaktovik and seven other communities scattered across the Michigan-sized region. Those are costly projects in the remote Arctic -- some say $1 million per home for the plumbing -- distinguishing Kaktovik from dozens of other Alaska villages whose residents still shit in containers called “honeybuckets.”

But the need for improvements strikes visitors as soon as their airplane wheels skid onto the dirt airstrip. Some homes are literally built from scraps, cobbled together from old buildings that were once part of the nation's Cold-War era radar system along Alaska's northern coast. The oldest hotel in town, the cozy but aging Waldo Arms, is a fused-together collection of camp trailers discarded after the 1970s pipeline construction boom subsided. The hotel also includes timber from a shipwreck scavenged off the coast.

You throw nothing away in a village with no roads in or out, said the hotel's longtime owner, Waldo Audi, a ponytailed, white-haired former Bush pilot who built the small hotel himself.

On a sagging couch in that hotel, Robert Thompson took off his winter cap and laid out his views against any drilling near his home. He's one of a few who have carved a living giving tours to the trickle of visitors who want to see the refuge, including a small-but-growing number of tourists flying north for a first-hand look at polar bears in the raw.

Though some North Slope leaders once argued that the refuge should be opened to prevent oil companies from accessing the Arctic Ocean, Thompson never saw it that way. Drilling in the refuge would just open the door to more drilling off the coast, he said. The rigs, wellheads, roads, and activity would threaten the animals, pollute the air and produce more climate change.

He doesn't care about the big dividends some say the village corporation would issue if oil were ever produced on KIC land. It's not worth threatening the caribou -- another main food source for the village. Thompson caught two on the island this summer.

"I'd rather have hunting than oilfields," said Thompson, chair of Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands, a Native-led-group called Redoil that's joined conservation groups in legal efforts to stop Shell.

Open the refuge, some say

Dozens of Kaktovik residents have signed onto a petition opposing drilling in the refuge, he said, indicating that villagers are pretty well divided on topic. It's easy finding people on both sides of the debate.

"ANWR, ANWR, ANWR, hands down," said Kayotuk. "If they spill on land, they can soak it up with pads. Offshore, there's nothing to help."

In the feast near the kitchen, Kim Kaleak wore a pink apron as she relaxed in a chair during a break from cooking. She sat near a foldout table spread with dishes of stewed whale meat, including bite-size chunks of liver, tongue and intestine, and, of course, the pink blubber called muktuk.

Her husband wasn't there. He'd hired on with Shell, working as one of their marine mammal observers. He's good at spotting whales and other animals from a distance, and his work helps protect the animals the village relies on, she said.

Despite that connection, Kaleak supports neither drilling in the Arctic Ocean nor the refuge. Last summer, she even dressed down the powerful head of the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee, Rep. Doc Hastings. He had come to town on one of those tours organized every summer by Alaska's congressional delegation. His guide was longtime Alaska Congressman Don Young, the Republican shepherd of more than a dozen open-ANWR bills that have passed Congress. All have been rejected by the Senate except for one in 1996, which passed but was vetoed by President Bill Clinton.

Hastings said opening ANWR would mean progress for the nation and the village, according to Kaleak. Kaleak told him he was wrong, and that he had no idea what the village needed in his two-hour drop-in visit, she said. "It's just a quick fix for the Lower 48. They come and do development and they say it won't alter our resources. But it will."

Land lying fallow

The day after the feast, in an office on the other side of Kaktovik, sat village corporation president, Phillip Tikluk Jr., wearing sweat pants, hiking boots and a derby cap.

"Dammit," he said, breathing deep after he was asked how he felt about the successful progress of offshore drilling. "Why, exactly, why? We could do it on land. And what if they have another mess like that one in the Gulf of Mexico?"

Oil production can co-exist with the Porcupine caribou herd, based on how well caribou numbers around the sprawl of buildings at giant Prudhoe Bay have fared over the decades, said Tikluk, 44. "It's a matter of regulating what oil companies do, and where they do it."

Unemployment is high in the village, and young people will need employment some day, including his own seven children. "We need jobs. We need people to go to work around here," said Tikluk. "But we are bound by the federal government. We got all this land and no way to develop it."

Renewed interest by oil companies has meant a few local jobs, plus other benefits. Shell employs a village liaison, for example, to serve as a link between residents and the company. There's also a communications center inside an old motor home, where a pair of attendants monitor marine traffic during the drilling season, providing extra awareness of a boat's whereabouts if there's trouble at sea.

For two years, Shell rented a hangar from KIC in case it needed a place to store oil spill equipment. But it sat empty, he said.

"They never used the hangar but they paid us $400,000 for eight padlocks and a couple of lights. Easiest money I ever made," Tikluk said, smiling.

The company's oil spill plan calls for it to base near-shore spill-response equipment in Prudhoe Bay, about 70 miles to the southwest of where Shell hopes to drill. That's in addition to spill-response vessels that Shell has near its drill site. So there's no requirement that the company have spill equipment in Kaktovik. Still, Shell has rented another Quonset-like facility in the village, in the event spill-response equipment needs staging in Kaktovik, he said.

"Shell's come around and kept us informed about what they're doing," Tikluk said. "I'm just not too hot on offshore."

Village left out

Like the formation of the refuge itself, and drilling in the Arctic seas, it won't be the village that determines the fate of the land and waters around Kaktovik.

More important will be national politics, global economics, and the advance of climate change. Will the melting be significant enough to ever make drilling in the Arctic Ocean safe and commercially profitable?

And there's a new wrinkle. The plight of the polar bear will weigh into future clashes over drilling in the coastal plain. Already considered threatened, the fluffy beasts appeared in record numbers near the village this year.

An estimated 80 were counted on Sept. 13 as part of daily surveys conducted each September for more than a decade. Sixty-five was the previous high, back in 2004. Scientists believe that melting sea ice may be bringing more bears ashore.

After the village landed its whale, the dozens of polar bears near the village were usually content to feast on the black head, about as big as a Volkswagen Beetle, that lay on the beach. But one night, as whalers continued carving up the whale on a spot overlooking the Beaufort, a sow with two cubs crept within about 20 yards of several whalers.

Car horns blared. Bystanders screamed. They shouted, "Nanuq! Nanuq!" the Iñupiaq word for polar bear.

Someone flung a handful rocks that bounced off the sow's muzzle. She stepped forward unperturbed, shifting her massive head from side to side to sniff at the air. She ignored firecracker shells blasted from shotguns. It wasn't until one hit the ground at her feet, fizzing and sending up a cloud of smoke, that the bears turned and fled.

Those sorts of interactions have many wondering about the future of human -- and polar bear -- safety.

Polar bears usually show up at Kaktovik once the whaling gets started in September. But this year they've been in the village all summer, some of them arriving on shore thin and weak, residents said.

Protecting the polar bear

What happens to those international icons could drive the debate over the refuge, and drilling in the Arctic offshore. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's 2011 draft management plan proposed for the refuge said the coastal plain is increasingly important for polar bears, because it has more potential denning habitat than other areas of the Arctic, the result of hills and streams that create snow drifts that can serve as dens.

"Thinning sea ice has apparently caused a shift from denning on sea ice to denning on land," the plan said, citing studies showing the proportion of pack-ice dens had fallen nearly by half during two multi-year study periods between 1985 and 2004.

"This shift emphasizes the importance of Arctic Refuge Coastal Plain to polar bears," the plan says.

Arthur Smith, a cinematographer who moved to Kaktovik some years ago to capture polar bears on film, probably spend more time observing the daily habits of these polar bears than anyone. Smith believes saving the animals means setting aside land sanctuaries for refuge during the lengthening ice-free periods of the summer and fall.

He and his wife have captured remarkable footage using high-end cameras, driving around town in an old ambulance bought on the cheap from Fairbanks. One of his films, "What Do Polar Bears Dream While They're Dying?" won Best Short Documentary at the Athens, Ohio, International Film Festival in 2011.

Smith said he's not against drilling, even offshore in the Arctic, a rare perspective in the village. But he believes the 1002 provides the most important denning habitat for Alaska polar bears. It should be declared a polar-bear sanctuary that ends the debate over drilling. Other areas of coastal Alaska should also be included, he said.

"The ice is gone," he said. "This year it's a catastrophic collapse of the ice pack that's only going to get worse. The idea that we're going to save the ice and save the polar bears? We missed that bus."

It's time to create places on land to protect those animals, he said.

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com.