ARCTIC NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, Alaska — Joe Titlichi was standing on the banks of the Porcupine River when he saw the caribou calf, so young its umbilical cord still trailed down from its belly, try to follow its mother across.
As the cow picked its way through the swirling waters, the calf tried desperately to swim behind. "By the time it got across, it was half on the shore, half in the water, and it was just laying there, shivering," said Titlichi, head of the board that monitors caribou movements in the vast eastern Arctic.
The mother waited on the bank, but with dozens of caribou around her pushing on in the herd's annual migration to the sea, she finally turned away. The urge to stay with the calf was strong. The urge to move was stronger.
All over this 19-million-acre refuge, ground zero in the battle over President Bush's energy plan, a remarkable story about the caribou--whose traditional calving on the coastal plain is one of the biggest impediments to drilling--is unfolding.
Late winter snows have forced thousands of caribou to calve along the arduous inland migration route, many miles from the safety of the coastal plain. That has set the stage for one of the worst years in the history of the Porcupine caribou herd.
Early estimates are that up to 15,000 of this year's calves will fall victim to predators, starvation or fatigue. Caribou have been seen calving on the other side of the roiling Porcupine, forcing those just a few hours old to cross its treacherous, icy waters. "It's one of the worst years we've ever seen in the 30 years we've been looking at the herd in detail," biologist Ken Whitten said. "The calf survival rate is way below normal, and probably not enough to sustain the herd."
The movements of these caribou through the tundra of northern Alaska have become the subject of intense global interest, thanks to the Bush administration's proposal to expand North Slope oil operations into the heart of the calving area on the grassy shelf between the mountains of the Brooks Range and the Beaufort Sea.
Over the last few weeks, film crews from all over the United States, Europe and Australia, private tour groups, congressional delegations and the U.S. secretary of the Interior have waited along the edges of the coastal plain to observe the calving--the apex of one of the last great mammal migrations in North America.
What has unfolded since June 1 is a sobering lesson in Arctic biology: Thousands of newborn caribou have died, scientists agree, because their mothers gave birth before reaching the coastal plain. A similar scenario occurred with unusually late snows last year, when an estimated 15,000 calves died.
"We're looking at a natural experiment. This is what happens when they're kept off the coastal plain by nature. The next thing is if they're kept off by industrial development. It would seem to say that it bodes really poorly," said Dan Ritzman, spokesman for the Alaska Coalition, an environmental group that is attempting to block oil drilling in the refuge.
But oil industry advocates look at the same facts and reach an opposite conclusion. "This was a high snow year. To me, it just shows the natural patterns and what's going to happen regardless of whether there's oil development there or not," said Kim Duke, acting director of Arctic Power, a group lobbying to open the refuge to drilling.
In fact, caribou and oil drilling may not be mutually exclusive. The central Arctic herd, which roams the massive Prudhoe Bay oil field, last year recorded its highest numbers ever--although much of the herd has moved away from its historic calving grounds closest to oil facilities, an option that might not be available on the narrower coastal plain at ANWR.
Duke said it would be a simple matter to accommodate the relatively brief calving season by shutting oil operations at calving time.
Although the new Democratic leadership in the Senate has made ANWR oil drilling legislation a longshot this year, the Alaska delegation is continuing its push. And advocates say they still have enough support on Capitol Hill and in the White House that anything could happen. "We don't feel that it's dead now by any means," Duke said.
In the heart of the proposed drilling area, scientists are working as quickly as possible to find out the extent of the calf mortality and understand the dynamics of the caribou's dependence on the contested coastal region.
The first official U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service surveys last week showed that 80% of the herd's 70,000 cows had calved but that only 51% had calves still alive by the end of June. That is only slightly better than last year, when 44% had calves that made it through June, and well below the traditional average of about 62%.
"It's serious," U.S. biologist Fran Mauer said. "The herd has been declining over the past 10 years, and when we get two poor years of calf production, that doesn't bode well for the decline to halt."
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