Brennan: Caribou may need more drillers

By Tom Brennan |

It may at long last be time to expose one of the more notable scams foisted on the world by the environmental community and open the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.

The so-called 10-02 area of ANWR, the area which was supposed to be evaluated for its oil potential, is believed to contain something on the order of 20 billion barrels of recoverable oil. But despite the fact that Congress designated the area for evaluation of its oil potential when ANWR was established, virtually no drilling has been conducted in the area.

The green scam is notable in that environmentalists have managed to convince many decision-makers that drilling in the coastal plain would be detrimental to the large caribou herd that summers there.

Actually, if the experience of caribou at the nearby Prudhoe Bay oilfield is an indicator — and it almost certainly is — one of the best things that could happen to the ANWR caribou is to have drillers operating in and around their calving grounds.

ANWR is a 19 million-acre refuge in Alaska’s northeast corner. Much of it is mountainous and features the high terrain of the Brooks Range and a scenic area of tundra and rolling foothills. That portion of the refuge is decidedly scenic and worthy of protection and extremely careful development, if any is undertaken. The 10-02 area, however, is a bleak Arctic plain used seasonally by the caribou. And probably nothing could protect the caribou better than having oil drillers in the neighborhood.

I say that because the caribou herd that summers in the Prudhoe Bay area, the Central Arctic herd, has thrived in the presence of oil drillers. There is a very good reason for that. The greatest threat to caribou calves on their birthing grounds is predatory wolves and grizzly bears. But both wolves and grizzlies shy away from human activities and tend to leave the caribou alone if people are in the area.

I saw that interaction between caribou, wolves and grizzlies first-hand when I worked for ARCO in the 1970s. I went to work for the company, which made the original discovery at Prudhoe Bay, in 1969. One of my initial assignments was to support biologist Angus Gavin, former executive director of Ducks Unlimited of Canada, in his environmental studies at Prudhoe starting just as the big oil development was getting underway.

Gavin, who became a personal friend, was hired by ARCO Chairman Robert O. Anderson to monitor the growing oil drilling and production operations at Prudhoe Bay and make recommendations to him for ways to prevent environmental damage from field activities. One of Angus’ early interests was the caribou herd that calved in the Prudhoe Area, its size and health considerations.

My boss told me to get Angus anything he needed to do his job and Angus’ first request was for an airplane with two pilots. (It was company policy that when flying in the back country all airplanes had to have two engines and two pilots.) I lined the airplane up for Angus and he soon had two biologists from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game traveling with him wherever he flew. The biologists had heard about Gavin’s study and wanted more information, so Angus offered them two seats on his airplane. The state biologists weren’t as much interested in watching over Angus’ studies as they were in taking advantage of the opportunity to fly with him and monitor the status of the caribou herd and anything else they could spot from the air. The second season in the field Angus told the pilots to go wherever the Fish and Game biologists wanted to go and he would back them up.

The first year, Angus and his two colleagues did a thorough flyover of the Central Arctic herd’s calving grounds and estimated that there were about 1,500 animals in the area. The second year there was a sizable increase, something like double the first year, but after that the caribou population exploded. Within a few years the herd size was up to 20,000 animals.

Angus said the caribou were thriving because the wolves and bears were staying away because they were intimidated by the oil workers and their heavy-duty machinery. The caribou didn’t mind the drillers and took advantage of the protection their proximity offered.

The Central Arctic caribou herd continued to thrive and reached 70,000 animals in 2010. It fell to 50,000 in 2013 and 20,000 this year. The drop is almost certainly normal fluctuation; herd size is determined largely by the availability of food sources and the impact of predators. Though biologists are concerned about the drop and are studying it to determine the cause, the herd size is still far larger than it was in 1969 and the drop seems unlikely to have been caused by oil activities. After all, the herd has thrived with an active oilfield on its summering grounds.

The experts do need to determine, if they can, why the Central Arctic herd dropped in recent years. But unless something drastic has changed, which I doubt, oil activities are an unlikely cause. Perhaps the drop-off in oil activity because of falling production has had a negative impact and the caribou need more drillers.

That makes more sense than most people would believe.



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