Though unknown to many North Americans, a large conservation battle has been taking place since 1980 over a specific piece of the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge known as the calving grounds.
This piece of land is essential for the survival of one of the last large migratory herds in North America, the Porcupine caribou. To better understand the trials these caribou must face, we embarked on a journey to intercept this epic migration and experience first hand a few of the many obstacles that stand in their way.
This year, the battle for these lands has become even more heated as the American government opened this sacred land for oil and gas exploration, and drilling. This manmade environmental threat has the potential to greatly affect the future of the caribou herd, as well as the ecosystem and the people whom strongly rely upon the caribou for survival.
The Porcupine caribou number around 200,000. Each spring, this herd makes its way from the northwestern fringe of the Northwest Territories, the Yukon, and northeastern Alaska to the coastal plains of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Sometimes travelling more than 3,000 miles a year, the area to which they are drawn has been their calving grounds for the last 30,000 years.
The journey of the Porcupine herd begins with the migration of the pregnant cows, who make it the refuge first to calve. After calving is done, the rest of the yearlings and bulls join the cows and their young.
In an attempt to witness this remarkable migration of creatures, we traversed through the land, often using their trails and attempting to choose the most viable path.
However, travelling through this arctic land was anything but easy. What appeared flat was either littered with large tussocks or marsh, and more often than not, both. The easiest method was to travel along the ridges, but this involved many steep ascents and descents on slippery shale and scree slopes.
Snow drifts yet to melt were almost always lying across our path. At first glance, the drifts would appear to be no deeper than our ankles. But as we began breaking trail, it became apparent with each step we were mistaken, and what should have been a short walk turned into an exhausting ordeal of muscling through sometimes hip-deep snow.