A month ago I was sent a story about the decline of the western arctic caribou herd of 60,000 animals. I was researching the Ambler road project and how it would endanger the herd. I was disturbed by the news, but not surprised. I had heard a rumor that caribou numbers had dropped drastically over the past two years. It was down then too, and down the previous two years.
Back in September, most of us weren’t aware of this dark digital update – except we kind of knew about it. It was impossible for the locals not to notice serious changes in the migration. For us hunters along the Kobuk and Noatak rivers where we got used to thousands, there were few or none.
Even without caribou, our lives have remained tangled with these animals. The conversations started with: “Have you seen caribou? “Have you heard of anyone catching caribou?” People were cruising the rivers, looking for any rumors on Facebook of a caribou. Every day I walked across the tundra, unsuccessfully searching for meat and photographs, wanting what I’m used to: seeing lots of animals. Something about picking – especially before a long winter – seems intrinsic to my well-being.
There, along the river, picking berries and eating fish, I knew the caribou were going through hard times and changing their ways to survive. I had just completed a 10 year project, writing a book on caribou. It taught me how little I knew, how tough their lives are, how incredible their resilience is. I had read about the collapse 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 this led to suffering, starvation and death.
When it was too late, I realized a paragraph I had forgotten to include: how ironic it is that caribou don’t take from us humans, they just provide. Mice pierce your furs, poop on your bread, hide your rice in your boot; bears tear up your things, steal your meat; the moose tramples your dogs, chases you up a tree. Even bees sting, mosquitoes sting, and tiny viruses get to us. Caribou do none of that. They are just there, passing through, providing or not.
It’s time to pay attention to history, nature and what we know: these animals need help, respect, space. Too many of us want caribou too much. Subsistence hunters and sportsmen, and even photographers and biologists, hikers and seers in flight. Now some people want the Ambler Highway, a 200 mile wound in the heart of caribou country that would bring thousands more strangers, more hunters, boats, snowmobiles, guns – no more harm to caribou .
As I read this report – and others – I noticed familiar themes: the rhetoric about currently starving villagers, the slowness to bring about real change, and the usual blaming of one group by another. People are really good at that. I noticed that I’m like that too; blaming feels good and feels like a solution. I also like to swear. It’s interesting how these two things fit together so well and feel like meaningful action. Unfortunately, they are not. I guess it’s lucky I spend so much time alone.
Here in Northwest Alaska, we know these animals matter to us. We don’t always think beyond wanting to eat them or getting them. We know they live in uncertain times. We have to start taking care of ourselves and believing that it is taking care of us.
We are not Doing this. We see or hear of caribou and set off, racing and hunting to catch them. We act like we can do whatever we want, and these animals will be there for us. They won’t. This is no longer the world we live in. It makes no sense to expect outsiders to take care of the caribou if we at home don’t. Sports hunters from afar? CEOs of billionaire mining companies from other countries? Biologists? Why should they care if we don’t?
I noticed something else in this report: an error. The article says we are allowed to harvest five bull caribou here in Unit 23. The truth is we are allowed to five caribou every day – most months which may also include cows and calves. The difference may seem subtle. It’s not. (The story has since been clarified.)
A few years ago I tried to lower that bag limit to 25 per person per year, with fewer cows harvested. My intention was not to diminish our food supply, only to protect it. I greatly appreciate this life that I have lived, being able to hunt whenever I wanted, but I also recognize how times have changed in our lives. My hope was to increase local participation and awareness of how our actions here in the region contribute to – or harm – the health of the herd.
I thought that – being human – hunters would naturally place more value on each animal if we were allowed, say, 25 instead of 1,825. (Like diamonds and gold – or matches, ammunition and food – the value people place on things is tied to scarcity.) harvest limit far exceeds the entire population of the West Alaskan caribou herd. I also proposed a reduction—or at least some limit—in the speed at which snowmobile hunters are allowed to hunt caribou in Unit 23. Again, only to protect the health of the herd.
The local advisory council rejected my proposals and ended up accusing me of being racist. Then they brought up a pet subject – sport hunters by plane, the Outsiders, who are hated and blamed here for delaying fall migration – and then passed a resolution to send to the Board of Game supporting the legalization of shooting at calves. This as a solution to the problem of so many orphaned calves after their mothers were slaughtered.
The Board of Game followed its recommendations: my proposals were rejected; the advisory board’s proposal has been turned into law, and we can now hunt calves as before.
I started swearing and blaming again. I had abort accesses on the system. Later, however, I saw that like most things in life, it was a learning opportunity. Beginning by recognizing that even here, we are a microcosm of modern America: where the discussion too often turns into a us versus them conflict, where accusations of racism are weaponized, where we have not gone beyond that old solution favored by kings and rulers through the ages who faced disastrous situations: “Quick! Shoot the messenger!
Two years later, I still feel like we’re missing something. Something subtle that we humans regress. There’s something about caring about caribou that’s not the same as fighting over who can kill them.
It’s not about race or color or our background background, and I can’t help but wonder, are we all desperate to stand up for our differences so that we can then feel good about our actions ?
Today we are incredibly lucky in Northwest Alaska – all of Alaska – living on a great land abundant with clean rivers, animals and so many wild fish. None of this is guaranteed. We can waste our future, as so many others have, or protect it. In November, I visited Butte, Montana, where a massive open-pit copper mine has so polluted the surrounding country that it is now America’s largest Superfund site. They have duck guards, to shoot the waterfowl to prevent them from landing on the poison lakes. The fish are either dead or too poisonous to eat. The soil along the banks is so polluted that trucks are hauling it away to bury it, and the runoff will have to be monitored for centuries.
We are lucky. We have information, hindsight and history to inform us. We know that surface copper mining is one of the dirtiest industries on the planet. This caribou decline comes at a good time to guide us, starting with saying no to what would be the worst thing for caribou: the Ambler Road project. The state cannot afford to build or maintain it, let alone foreign mining companies, and we absolutely know that copper mines on the Kobuk River would do more harm to the Arctic herd of the West. The road would bring thousands more people to caribou country and pollute our rivers, our fish and our food – which we will need when famine returns.
It’s about us. Not strangers, our neighbors, or even our brothers or cousins. Each of us, individually, must make this subtle shift, to survive, to not go back, 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, more recently, the non-fiction book “Swallowed by the Great Land”. He lives in northwest Alaska and can be contacted at sethkantner.com.
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