OPINION: Ambler Road will affect caribou, subsistence users

The Bureau of Land Management will soon issue the final environmental review for the proposed Ambler Road, a 211-mile industrial corridor in Northwest Alaska. The Ambler Road has been the subject of many articles in this paper, including a March 24 commentary that stated, “The Red Dog mine has not significantly disrupted wildlife and fishing.”

My work as the Western Arctic Herd (WAH) caribou biologist from 1988-2016 for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game does not support this statement.

Given the ongoing 20-year decline of this herd and its importance to residents of northwest Alaska — especially Inupiaq and Koyukon Athabascan peoples who have relied on these caribou for millennia — it is important to understand how WAH caribou responded to an industrial mine within their range over the last 25-plus years.

The Ambler Road would likely significantly impact caribou migrations.

To better understand potential impacts of the Ambler Road on this herd, I mapped fall migratory movements of satellite-collared WAH caribou in the northwest portion of their range during 2000-2015. I compared movements of collared caribou that came within 30 miles of the Red Dog mine, road and port to movements of WAH caribou that migrated through areas far from development. I had flown over this 52-mile road during fall (which few caribou contact during other seasons) for more than 20 years to monitor caribou crossing success, but was still shocked by what these maps showed.

During the 11 years when more than 5% of the WAH migrated near Red Dog, an average of 23,000 caribou were delayed annually by the road. Road impacts were most pronounced during 2011, when roughly 78,000 caribou were delayed and backtracked up to 100 straight-line miles. That year, collared caribou were delayed an average of 33 days; however, some individuals were delayed up to two months. In contrast, WAH caribou that migrated through undeveloped areas were not delayed and reached their winter range long before the delayed caribou. In all years, most delayed caribou eventually crossed the road. The road affected caribou even after crossing it: Once across, many caribou more than doubled their speed to reach their winter range.

These delays may have impacted subsistence users more than caribou. The rapid movement south by delayed caribou meant that hunters “downstream” of the road had little time to hunt them. Delayed caribou didn’t approach some communities until ice conditions prevented hunters from reaching them by boat or snowmachine. Additionally, delayed caribou were in rut by the time they reached some communities, which forced hunters to take cows rather than bulls.


The proposed Ambler complex would involve multiple mines, significantly more infrastructure, and cover a much larger area than Red Dog. It is reasonable to expect that impacts to caribou from the Ambler project would greatly exceed impacts from Red Dog. Although some minerals from the Ambler Mining District might facilitate the transition to clean energy, the certain social and environmental costs of developing this area would greatly exceed its benefits.

Roads are associated with diminished subsistence harvests in rural communities.

An analysis of ADF&G subsistence harvest data from more than 18,000 households in 179 communities during 1983-2013 found that “if the NANA Region were connected to … a public road, average incomes might change slightly, while average subsistence harvests would go down a lot,” according to researchers James Magdanz, J. Greenberg, J.M. Little and D.S. Koster.

Although the Ambler Road is proposed as a private industrial corridor, there is a strong precedent in Alaska of similar projects, such as the Dalton Highway, eventually being opened to the public.

There’s never a good time to fragment caribou range, but this is a particularly bad time to do so for this herd.

The WAH has declined by two-thirds since 2003, likely—at least in part—because of warming temperatures. Given predictions that temperatures will continue to rise for at least several decades, this is a terrible time to risk range fragmentation from the Ambler Road and industrial mining.

Opposition to the Ambler Road is significant.

The March 24 commentary correctly noted that environmental groups, many from outside of Alaska, oppose the Ambler Road. It did not mention that a 2023 NANA Corp. survey showed that: a narrow majority of its local shareholders oppose this road; dozens of Alaska Native Tribes oppose it; many hunting and fishing organizations oppose it; more than 80% of all public testimony to BLM (November 2023) opposed it; and that a national survey showed opposition exceeds support as well.

The time to conserve Western Arctic Herd caribou and their habitat is now.

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