Proposed Ambler Access Project: Potential Effects on Caribou & People

by Jim Dau

Image credit: Pixabay

Given the State of Alaska’s budget crisis, Juneau politicians are currently considering the Ambler Access Project (AAP) as one way to increase state revenues. It would establish a road extending west from the Dalton Highway to the Ambler Mining District. The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA), which administers the proposed AAP, states, “The Ambler Access project could provide surface access to the Ambler Mining District, home to several known large prospects…and enable further exploration and development of the area’s resources, providing for economic development” (www.ambleraccess.org).

The state — despite budget shortfalls that threaten even basic public services and infrastructure — and private industry have invested millions of dollars in recent years to evaluate and promote this project. But its potential benefits and costs cannot be measured solely by dollars and cents. Subsistence users who have lived for generations near the proposed AAP, and people who live far from it but who value or depend on caribou that inhabit this area, are deeply concerned about how the AAP might affect caribou and other wildlife and fish.

I worked as a wildlife biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) during 1988–2016. In 2012, in response to a question I received from an Ambler resident during an AAP scoping meeting there, I mapped Western Arctic Herd (WAH) caribou movements near the De Long Mountain Transportation System (DMTS, comprised of the Red Dog mine, road and port site in the northwest portion of WAH range) using data from satellite-collared WAH caribou to assess how this herd might react to the proposed AAP (collars provided by ADFG, National Park Service, Fish & Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Land Management).

I had observed caribou near the DMTS during fall aerial surveys for 25+ years and, having never seen any evidence to suggest the road might be a significant barrier to them, I didn’t expect the telemetry data to reveal anything besides typical fall movements. But I needed to confirm my impressions with data that covered a broader area over a longer period of time than my opportunistic aerial survey observations. The maps surprised me.

During August-December 2011, 21 of 74 collared caribou in the WAH (28%) approached within 30 miles of the DMTS. Of those 21 collared caribou, 18 of them (86%) obviously changed their rate or direction of travel (based on my subjective assessment) as they approached the DMTS. The other three exhibited no obvious change in their movement pattern. If this sample reasonably reflected the entire herd, which in 2011 numbered about 325,000 caribou, 24% — roughly 78,000 caribou — changed their movement pattern as they approached the DMTS.[1]

Movements of caribou within 30 miles of the DMTS were strikingly different from those that passed farther from it. Many of the collared caribou, which had generally been migrating south toward winter range as they approached the DMTS, reversed direction and traveled northwest as far as Point Hope (roughly 100 miles) before resuming their southward migration. Some caribou approached the DMTS multiple times before successfully crossing it, and most of them were delayed not for hours or days but for weeks before finally crossing it. Despite these difficulties, most of the affected caribou eventually did cross the DMTS and wintered with the majority of the WAH.

The influence of the DMTS on caribou was noticeable even after they had successfully crossed it in that their rate of travel greatly increased after crossing the road until they reached their winter range. Although this increase in speed likely had little biological impact on the affected caribou, it provided subsistence hunters from Noatak and Kotzebue a very brief window of opportunity (that had been delayed to coincide with freeze up when hunting was almost impossible) to get their fall supply of caribou meat.

After mapping the 2011 data I wondered, “Has it always been like this and I just didn’t recognize it?”

The answer was “No,” but was confusing in its inconsistency. I mapped annual fall movements of satellite collared WAH caribou back to 1994 using the same criteria I’d used for 2011 data and later included the years 2012–2015 as well. In some years very few WAH caribou migrated near the DMTS; in those years, its impact on the WAH was zilch. When a substantial portion of the herd moved through the DMTS, they experienced difficulty crossing the road in some years, while other years they moved through the DMTS as if it wasn’t there. I suspect that when we discover a scientific explanation for this it will be consistent with what I heard from Iñupiaq elders throughout my career. To paraphrase: “Always let the lead caribou pass before you begin hunting them. If the leaders make trails, the caribou behind them will follow even when you hunt them. But if you turn the leaders back, you’ll turn them all back.” I think biologists will eventually confirm that these elders’ wisdom applies to all sources of disturbance to caribou, not just hunting.

Even if human activities along a newly established road are regulated to ensure that lead caribou can cross unhindered, other factors raise additional considerations. Worldwide, people use roads to access animals, fish, berries, etc. As nonlocal hunter numbers increase near new roads, hunting regulations must become more complicated and restrictive to conserve wildlife. Thus, even if migratory movements and numbers of a caribou population remain unchanged after a road is constructed through some part of its range, subsistence hunters may experience more restrictive seasons or bag limits in response to an influx of nonlocal hunters.

The AIDEA solution to this is to require the AAP to be a privately owned industrial road, closed to the public including hunters. This would reduce its potential to disturb wildlife and local residents but does not guarantee that it would never affect them. For example, although Red Dog’s original policy was to prohibit all public use of the DMTS, they eventually modified that policy after it became apparent that they could not effectively prevent residents of Kivalina from occasionally hunting caribou from it. Prohibition works only if it is enforced, and enforcement is costly. As on the Dalton Highway and DMTS, there will likely be tremendous pressure from nonlocal and local hunters to allow hunting from the AAP. Additionally, traffic levels can still be relatively high on industrial roads. Vehicles pass along the DMTS an average of once every 15 minutes, many of them large ore trucks. The effects of the DMTS on WAH movements have occurred despite genuine efforts by Red Dog staff to prevent or at least minimize disturbances.

Over the past 30 years the ADFG Subsistence Division has documented that per capita harvests of subsistence foods, including meat from large mammals such as caribou, are significantly lower for communities along the Alaska road system than for communities in roadless areas for many reasons. Thus, the proposed AAP isn’t just about potential threats to caribou (and moose, fish, etc.). It’s also about the social implications of accelerating Indigenous peoples’ transition from traditional subsistence ways to a cash economy.

Consider the last clause of the AAP’s objectives statement when contemplating this project: “The Ambler Access project could …… enable further exploration and development of the area’s resources, providing for economic development.” Thus, the AAP could be just the first step in an expanding network of industrial development in northwest Alaska. Will the wildlife and people — especially local subsistence users — of northwest Alaska fare any better in the face of development than they have in the Lower 48? Will the economic benefits of the AAP, such as job creation, reduced transportation costs and creation of an additional tax base to increase state revenues, outweigh the costs to caribou, other fish and wildlife, and people?

Although all Alaskans have a stake in this decision, the brunt of any social costs stemming from its construction will be borne by subsistence users who reside near the proposed AAP. But our political representatives — statewide — will ultimately make this decision. That’s how democracy works.

Decades of experience in Alaska unequivocally show that caribou herds can exist in areas served by roads, even when caribou are hunted from those roads. But, in addition to the benefits of roads, they also come with costs.

Alaska residents and politicians still have the opportunity to make informed decisions regarding short- and long-term effects of the proposed AAP. Take time to understand the complexities of road-wildlife-people issues as well as the many potential benefits and costs of this project. But don’t stop there. Express your desires to your political representatives. They need (and may even appreciate) your help.


[1] My initial subjective impressions regarding the delay and deflection of these caribou were confirmed with the help of several other wildlife biologists (Wilson, R.R., L.S. Parrett, K. Joly and J.R. Dau. 2016. Effects of roads on individual caribou movements during migration. Biol. Cons. 195:2–8).