OPINION: Consider the Ambler Road from a caribou’s point of view

My name is Cyrus Harris. I’m Iñupiaq from Sisualik, 12 miles across Kotzebue Sound from Kotzebue, and a co-chair of the Western Arctic Caribou Herd Working Group.

I want to talk about the fall caribou migration that I grew up with. In Sisualik, there were several families that lived there in spring, summer, fall. If a traveler passed through, we asked what their observations of caribou were on the way. Elders got together to speak about the coming caribou migration.

When the caribou did start migrating, us younger guys were always eager to hunt. The elders would say no, hold off. We didn’t understand that they were allowing the first caribou to cross. After a day of heavy crossing, there was no stopping the caribou behind them. We worked together and went hunting for our winter food supply.

That’s how it was done back then. But since my younger years, Sisualik folks noticed that the caribou migrate much later. As we eventually found out, the Port Site road, which was developed for the Red Dog Mine, turns the caribou back on their migration path. When they finally cross and come south, we’re able to hunt, but the bulls are already bad from the rut. Growing up, we used to be able to get bulls when they were in their prime, when there’s plenty of body fat and good skin.

This past fall was the first fall that I had no caribou. This, combined with the declining caribou population, is a big challenge we see at Sisualik and around the Northwest Arctic today.

With the discussion about Ambler Road, I’m looking at it from the view of the caribou. The Ambler Road is a proposed 211-mile road that would cut the eastern part of caribou habitat in half and connect our region with the rest of the state’s, and country’s, road system.

Caribou will start detecting the noise of that road from miles away. They’ll get closer, cautiously head in that direction. But they’ll be hesitant to cross. This has already been proven to happen at Red Dog Mine’s port site. There are scientific studies to back up what I’m saying. Indigenous folks said this would happen.


There are many more consequences that would come with the Ambler Road. These would affect not just caribou, but also waterfowl and fish species of all sorts. Contaminants from the road and mines will drain from the tundra to the creeks, and from the creeks to the Kobuk River. People making decisions about the Ambler Road don’t seem to understand that Sisualik and Kotzebue are going to be highly affected.

When people were first doing studies in preparation for the Ambler Road, they claimed that there were no fish in a certain creek. I thought that was ridiculous — fish migrate, too. Scientists often come up in summer, but later in the year, that creek would swarm with fish. There’s a season for every species in a particular location. For instance, caribou heavily migrate through that area where the Ambler Road would be in the spring and fall time. And there are groups that stay throughout the winter.

One thing that I know is that once you have a road connecting a community to the outside world, you become urban. So what happens when we become urban? We end up back to zero and lose our rights to subsist. Once the road is developed, it’s going to affect our lifestyle — it’s going to basically kill our culture.

Mining companies get done messing up some other place, run out of resources, and then expand up here. I don’t understand why our world is designed so that the majority of that revenue will go to another country, while our region is going to get scraps.

I think about this all the time. All parts of this land and sea are very sensitive and should not be disturbed by industrial development. After all, Alaska is the last frontier, isn’t it? For the sake of our future generations, I’m speaking in opposition to the Ambler Road, to save our culture.

Cyrus Harris was born in 1957 in Kotzebue,and grew up at Sisualik living a traditional Iñupiaq way of life. He established the Hunter Support Program with Maniilaq Assocation, providing traditional foods to elders, and is a co-chair of the Western Arctic Caribou Herd Working Group. As a lifelong hunter, he is a keen observer and navigator with deep knowledge of the land.

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