A month ago, I was sent a news story about the Western Arctic Caribou Herd having declined by 60,000 animals. I was researching the proposed Ambler Road and how it would endanger the herd. I was disturbed by the news, but not surprised. I’d heard a rumor that the caribou count had dropped drastically from two years ago. It was down then, too, and down the two years before that.
In September, most of us weren’t aware of this grim numerical update — except, we kind of knew it. It was impossible for locals not to notice severe changes in the migration. For us hunters, along the Kobuk and Noatak rivers where we have grown accustomed to thousands, there were few or none.
Even with no caribou, our lives remained tangled up with these animals. Conversations started with, “Seen any caribou?” “Heard of anybody getting caribou?” People boated the rivers, chasing after even the faintest Facebook rumor of a caribou. Every day I walked the tundra, searching unsuccessfully for meat and photographs, longing for what I’m used to: being around a lot of animals. Something about gathering — especially before a long winter — feels intrinsic to my well-being.
There along the river, picking berries and eating fish, I knew caribou were having hard times, and changing their patterns to survive. I’d just finished a 10-year project, writing a book about caribou. It taught me how little I knew, how arduous their lives are, how amazing their resilience. I’d read about the crash of this herd in the 1800s — caused by changes in hunting technology and cultural values, and too much hunting pressure — and how just a century ago that led to suffering, starvation and death.
When it was too late, I realized a paragraph I’d forgotten to include: how ironic it is that caribou don’t take from us humans, they only provide. Mice chew holes in your furs, poop on your bread, stash your rice in your boot; bears tear up your stuff, steal your meat; moose stomp your dogs, chase you up a tree. Even bees sting, mosquitos bite and tiny viruses take from us. Caribou do none of that. They are just here, passing through, providing — or not.
It’s time to pay attention to history, to Nature and what we know: These animals need some help, some respect, some space. Too many of us want too much from caribou. Subsistence and sport hunters, and even photographers and biologists, hikers and flight-seers. Now some people want the Ambler Road, a 200-mile wound into the heart of caribou country that would bring thousands more outsiders, more hunters, boats, snowmobiles, guns — more harm to caribou.
Reading that news story — and others — I noticed familiar themes: rhetoric about villagers starving presently, foot-dragging on making any real changes, and the usual blaming of one group by another. People sure are good at that. I’ve noticed I’m that way, too; blaming feels good, and sort of like a solution. I enjoy cussing, too. It’s interesting how those two things fit together so well, and feel like meaningful action. Sadly, they’re not. I guess it is lucky I spend so much time alone.
Here in Northwest Alaska, we know these animals matter to us. We just don’t always think past wanting to eat them, or get them. We know they’re living through uncertain times. We need to start caring, and trust that is caring for ourselves.
We are not doing that. We see or hear of caribou and we launch ourselves, racing and chasing to get them. We act as if we can do whatever we want, and these animals will be here for us. They won’t. That’s not the world we live in anymore. It makes no sense to expect outsiders to care for caribou if we at home are not doing that. Sport hunters from far away? Billionaire mining company CEOs from other countries? Biologists? Why should they care if we don’t?
I noticed another thing in that news story: a mistake. The article said we’re allowed to harvest five bull caribou here in Unit 23. The truth is we’re allowed five caribou each day — most months that can include cows and calves, too. The difference might seem subtle. It’s not. (The story has since been clarified.)
A couple of years ago, I tried to get that bag limit reduced, to 25 per person per year, with fewer cows harvested. My intention was not to decrease our food supply, only to protect it. I greatly value this life I’ve lived, able to hunt whenever I wanted, but I also recognize how times have changed in our lifetimes. My hope was to raise local participation in, and awareness of how our actions here in the region contribute to — or harm — the health of the herd.
I reasoned that — being human — hunters would naturally place more value on each individual animal if we were allowed, say, 25 instead of 1,825. (Like diamonds and gold — or matches, ammo and food — the value people place on things is tied to scarcity.) I thought lowering the bag limit might also help the Department of Fish and Game avoid future embarrassment — if anyone noticed that the total harvest limit far exceeds the entire Western Alaska Caribou Herd population. I also proposed a reduction — or at least some limit — to the speed at which hunters on snowmobiles are allowed to chase caribou in Unit 23. Again, only to protect the health of the herd.
The local advisory board shot me down on my proposals and finished off by accusing me of being racist. Afterwards, they brought up a favorite subject — fly-in sport hunters, Outsiders, who are hated and blamed here for delaying the fall migration — and then passed a resolution to send to the Board of Game supporting making it legal to shoot calves. This as a solution to the problem of so many calves orphaned after their mothers are shot.
The Board of Game took their recommendations: my proposals were nixed; the advisory board’s proposal was made into law, and we now can hunt calves as in days of old.
I went back to cussing and blaming. I had bouts of giving up on the system. Later, though, I saw that, like most things in life, this was an opportunity to learn. Starting with recognizing that even here we are a microcosm of modern America: where discussion too often turns into an us-against-them conflict, where accusations of racism are used as weapons, where we haven’t progressed past that old fix favored by kings and rulers down through the ages who faced dire situations: “Quick! Shoot the messenger!”
Two years later, I still feel there is something we’re missing. Something subtle we humans are getting backwards. Something about caring about caribou that is not the same as fighting over who gets to shoot them.
It’s not about race or color or baggage from our backgrounds, and I can’t help wondering, are we all desperate to defend our differences so we can then feel OK about our actions?
Today we are incredibly fortunate in Northwest Alaska — in all of Alaska — living on a big bountiful land with clean rivers, animals and so many wild fish. None of this is guaranteed. We can mess up our future, as so many have — or protect it. In November, I visited Butte, Montana, where a huge open-pit copper mine has polluted the surrounding country so badly it is now the largest Superfund site in America. They have duck guards, to shoot at waterfowl to keep them from landing on the poison lakes. The fish are dead or too toxic to eat. The soil along the riverbanks is so polluted that trucks haul it away to bury, and the runoff will need to be monitored for centuries.
We are lucky. We have information, hindsight and history to inform us. We know open-pit copper mining is one of the worst polluting industries on Earth. This decline in caribou comes at a perfect time to help guide us, starting with saying no to what would be the worst thing for caribou: the proposed Ambler Road. The state can’t afford to build it or maintain it, let alone do so for foreign mining companies, and we absolutely know copper mines on the Kobuk River would bring more harm to the Western Arctic Herd. The road would bring thousands more people to caribou country, and pollute our rivers and fish and food — what we are going to need when starvation does return.
This is about us. Not outsiders, our neighbors, or even our brothers or cousins. Each of us, individually, needs to make that subtle change, to survive, to not get it backward, to understand that caring about caribou and other creatures is caring about ourselves.
Seth Kantner is the author of the best-selling novel “Ordinary Wolves” and most recently the nonfiction book “A Thousand Trails Home: Living With Caribou.” He lives in Northwest Alaska and can be reached at sethkantner.com.
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