In the Gwich'in language, there’s a name for the area just north of the Brooks Range, the mountains that run along the northern rim of Alaska and divide the densely forested interior from the spare Arctic coast. Where the land flattens out into low-lying tundra before meeting the Beaufort Sea is Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit, or “the sacred place where life begins.”
The name honors the role this 1.5-million-acre swath of Arctic coastal plain plays as the primary calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou, a herd of more than 200,000 animals. This crucial habitat is where tens of thousands of pregnant cows migrate each year to give birth.
The calving grounds, which lie within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, offer sustenance and partial shelter from predation during the herd’s most vulnerable season, before the cows and their shaky-legged new offspring begin their annual migrations. The herd travels as many as 3,000 miles within a huge expanse of Alaska, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories before returning to the coastal plain each spring. They have no typical migration route, but are guided by snowfall and weather, and must ford whitewater rivers along the way. It’s a dangerous journey, and when deep mountain snows delay the migration, fewer of the calves survive.
The caribou are at the heart of the wild food web in this part of the world. Ruminants whose four stomachs transform the tough, tenacious ground plants of the tundra into muscle, they, in turn, support bears, wolves, wolverines, golden eagles and all the other predators and scavengers of the region, right down to the clouds of biting insects. And they are central to the lives and culture of the Gwich’in people.
Traditionally, the animal provided not just food but an array of goods: hide clothing, antler arrow points, bone awls, sinew fishnets and much more. And while today the Gwich’in have little need to store water in a caribou stomach or bladder, they still eat everything from the animal’s backstrap to its bone marrow and brains.
It is “our number one diet,” says Trimble Gilbert, a Gwich’in elder in Arctic Village, a community of about 180 people in the southern foothills of the Brooks Range. The village is bounded to the north and west by the silty, snaking, fast-moving Chandalar River. Its modest, brightly painted homes spread out between numerous lakes and low hills.
Inside any home in the community you’re likely to find a pair of binoculars or a spotting scope sitting in the front window, so residents can spot caribou silhouettes as they break the horizon near town. Subsistence hunting is still a major part of daily life here, and many boys make their first kill at age 11 or 12. The community’s most successful hunters provide for everyone, bringing in not only caribou but also moose, waterfowl, fish and more.
Gilbert can’t remember how old he was when he hunted his first caribou. The memory has faded over the more than 70 years and countless hunts since. He hunted with his father all the time, he says, and he taught his three sons in turn. They taught their children, and, a few years ago, his great-granddaughter, Jewels Gilbert, took a caribou, too.
Of the roughly 7,000 Gwich’in people, only a few hundred live in traditional communities such as Arctic Village, its U.S. neighbor Venetie and the Canadian community of Old Crow. Most have moved to larger towns and cities in Alaska, northern Canada and elsewhere. In the villages, most of which are not reachable by road, it’s still possible to live with limited involvement in the cash economy—to hunt for a living. But even those settlements represent a major shift from the nomadism of just a few generations ago. When Gilbert travels, to Fairbanks, say, 230 miles to the southeast, he gets antsy for home. “It’s good for me for four or five days,” he says. “And then I’ve got to have my own food.”
Since the 1980s, the coastal plain has gone by other names—“the 1002 area” or “the 1002 lands,” as designated in the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which set it apart from the rest of ANWR. While most of the refuge was fully protected from oil and gas exploration, the law left open the possibility that development inside the 1002 area could be permitted in the future. In the decades since, it has become the focus of heated debate. Proponents of development argue that it can be done without harming wildlife. “We have a lot of mitigation measures and practices in place” to protect the caribou, says Kara Moriarty, president and CEO of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association. And industry has raised the standard of living for Inupiat communities along the coast, some of whom support exploration in the coastal plain. But many Gwich’in who live off the land, along with conservationists and environmental scientists, argue that roads, drill rigs, pipelines and other infrastructure would drive the caribou away from their calving grounds and trigger a population decline that would, by extension, upset the balance of the wider ecosystem and upend the Gwich’in way of life. Mike Suitor, a Yukon government caribou biologist, says that we can’t predict with certainty how the caribou would fare. “What this is about is risk. From a science standpoint, I think the risks are too great.”
The battle over whether to allow this type of development has waxed and waned. In 2017, the Trump administration moved to open the 1002 area to oil drilling, and later auctioned off several land-leases; in 2021, the Biden administration suspended them.
What can get lost in news coverage of the debate is the wonder of the refuge itself. It’s a place where the rivers run cold and fast to an ocean that is frozen for more than half the year, and where wild cranberries ripen with the first late-summer frosts. In the 1950s, the National Park Service sent Lowell Sumner, an ecologist and research biologist, to assess the area. “One feels one has lived, and seen some of the world unspoiled, as it was intended people should see it,” he wrote. Polar bears dig their dens here, wolves roam freely, and for hundreds of miles cottongrass blooms and sways under the midnight sun.
Although Gilbert worries about his community’s future, about the loss of its traditional lifestyle and especially the danger to the caribou if oil and gas drilling is permitted, he’s also hopeful. “We’ve lived in this country for the last 10,000 years, with our bare hands,” he says. “And we’re still here.”