Caribou Calving Grounds?

Text by iLCP Fellow Peter Mather

It is 1am as I drive down Alaska’s straightest and smoothest road. We are on our way home and making good time. The sun, having just set, is a pastel pink and a single cloud, resembling cotton candy, hangs low in the sky. As a conservation photographer, I spend too many days in the field away from my family, and I miss them in a way that interferes with my work. When I finish expeditions I am homesick and I rush for a home in a dangerous way. We are driving through the night, and the quiet allows me to reflect on the expedition we have just concluded.

I lack appropriate language to explain the challenges of our trip. From start to finish, it was a frustrating series of events that drove our team to hair pulling and tears as we tried in vain to capture the birthing and nursing of the 200,000 strong Porcupine Caribou herd. As I drive, half-wallowing and half-laughing over our struggles, it occurs to me that this spring of frustrations could be a portend for the Porcupine Caribou herd. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and the animals are struggling both with climatic changes impacting the environment and the threat of industrial scale development on the single tiny strip of land integral to the herd.

Our plan was to bring eight freelance photographers, writers and filmmakers into the threatened 1002 Lands of the coastal plain of the Refuge This is the first in a series of expeditions organized by the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP) to spread stories from the Refuge across the US, and the world, to gather support in defending this biological wilderness gem.

Photo by Bethany Paquette

I was ready to go, having cleaned all my lenses, charged about twenty batteries, and packed and repacked my clothes half a dozen times but we had to pull the plug on the mission, or adjust our dates, as all reports from the Arctic told us that spring had not arrived and the pregnant caribou were still 100 miles from their calving grounds.

As we adjust our plans, the majority of the 200,000 strong Porcupine caribou herd have settled into the foothills of Ivvavik National Park in Northern Yukon. They have spent weeks traversing through the ridges and valleys of the Brooks Range only to arrive at the Eastern end of the coastal plain, a land that is normally teeming with the fresh offshoots of cotton grass, only they are greeted with a cold, surprisingly dark land of ice, snow and arctic fog. In a normal year, they would move West through the flat grasslands of this Arctic oasis until they reached their core calving and nursing grounds in the 1002 Lands. This year, they don’t move west, they stop in their tracks, frozen as it were, and they wait for the plains to melt.

Photo by Nathaniel Wilder

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It is June 7th when our parred down group of 4 fly into the Refuge on a gamble. Unable to land on the still frozen coastal plain, we are dropped off 5 miles and two sharp mountains south of the coastal plain. We are betting that the cows and newborn calves, will soon cross our path as they move west into the Refuge from Canada. Our understanding is that when the coastal plain melts the cows and calves will move into their prime habitat in the 1002 Lands. The only problem… it is still winter and by some cruel twist of fate, spring is nowhere in sight.

Over the next three days, we hunker down on the Kongakut River and watch small groups of 10 to 20 caribou pass by. The caribou we see are barren cows, yearlings and young bulls. They have left the vast bulk of pregnant cows and newborns back in Canada, as their instincts pull them into the 1002 lands. On our third day, we spot our first calf. Only days old and it can already outrun a grizzly bear. She follows her mom in a manic way that reminds me of my youngest daughter Maya, when she was 7 years old; full of energy, determination, and a panicked desire to not get left behind.

Photo by Nathaniel Wilder

On June 11th, we decide to hike out to the coastal plain in hopes of catching the cows and calves as they migrate west. The two-day hike is a lesson in misery; snowdrifts, snowstorms, snow, frozen tussocks, frozen swamps, and more snow. Our group glue is Anchorage-based photographer Nathaniel Wilder, his positivity is the only thing that keeps us going. His infectious enthusiasm almost makes the first day’s hike through snowdrifts a fun jaunt. His continued optimism, when the second day turns into 12 hours of slush mucking, makes me want to punch him in the stomach so that I can enjoy my anger and misery in peace. Luckily, I didn’t. He probably would have cheerfully beat me to a pulp.

When we arrive at our destination, where the coastal plain meets the foothill mountains, the weather turns and we get a chance to explore. We are no longer walking on snow and frozen tussocks, but solid ground. A two-mile stroll now takes an hour and requires little energy; we love it. Our enthusiasm quickly transforms into stress when we spot our first Grizzly Bear. Four hours and five Grizzlies later and our nerves are really frayed. Grizzly Bears out here are a little bolder than in the south. Down south, a curious Grizzly is a dead Grizzly, up here…well curiosity is usually rewarded with food, so the bears tend to be curious and aggressive with everything they see, including what could be viewed as colorful caribou that walk upright but is actually four nervous photographers hoping not to become dinner.

Photo by Nathaniel Wilder

In the 5 days that we straddle the edges of the still frozen coastal plain, we encounter 8 Grizzly Bears, 8 wolves, and dozens of birds of prey. This is the predator gauntlet that the caribou must run this year. One of many reasons that they rely on the 1002 lands of the Arctic Refuge, the very same land that has been opened to the fossil fuel industry. The endangered land provides them with an abundance of high protein food, protection from wolves and golden eagles who stick to the mountains to raise their young, protection from Grizzlies that are easy to spot on the open plains, and relief from the hordes of mosquitoes that can drive any living being crazy. This year, this unpredictable, frustrating year, is perhaps a peek into the future. A glimpse, showing us what life may be like for the caribou if they are pushed out of their calving grounds.

The cows and calves don’t make it to us. We stay as long as we can, but we run out of food and have to return to the Kongakut River and eventually back home. It will be weeks before the caribou and calves finally make it to their core habitat. It will be a very hard year for the caribou. The calf survival rate will likely be the lowest ever recorded. I hope this isn’t a portend of their future. I hope that tens of thousands of people like us will do something. That together we will convince those with power that this land, the caribou people, these caribou, these birds and bears and wolves have immense value too.

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