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Canadians join lawsuit to overturn opening Alaska wilderness to energy drilling

Canadian environmentalists and First Nations have joined a U.S. lawsuit that seeks to overturn a U.S. decision that opens an Alaska wilderness for oil and gas exploration.

Canadian environmentalists and First Nations have joined a U.S. lawsuit that seeks to overturn a U.S. decision that opens an Alaska wilderness for oil and gas exploration.

The lawsuit, filed Monday in Alaska, alleges the activity will damage the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd, one of the last large, healthy herds in the world and crucial to the livelihoods of First Nations on both sides of the border.

"We are now in a day and age where other people try to sell our birthrights without consultation," said Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm of the Vuntut Gwich'in.

The Vuntut is one of five Canadian communities that make up the Gwich'in Steering Committee, which brought the lawsuit against the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"No one should stand by idly while the birthing grounds of the caribou are sold for oil and gas," Tizya-Tramm said.

The environmental assessment the U.S. relied on in its Aug. 17 decision to lease the coastal plain of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge didn't meet legal requirements, said Chris Rider of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, also part of the lawsuit.

"We feel they did a rushed job in order to try and get the Arctic refuge open for drilling. They did a bad job."

The Porcupine herd, which numbers more than 200,000 animals, is such an important food source for First Nations in the United States and Canada that the two countries have signed a treaty promising to help each other conserve it.

The herd returns every year to calve along an ecologically rich strip of Alaska's north coast. The region is sheltered from predators and insects while offering a rich diet of grasses and sedges.

Although it's the last five per cent of the Alaska coast that has remained closed to exploration, industry has long sought access.

President Donald Trump's administration has sought to provide it. Last fall, an environmental assessment of energy exploration led to that open door.

The lawsuit alleges the assessment didn't consider major issues such as the impact of development on permafrost or polar bears, which use the area for denning. It claims the assessment was wrong in its declaration that drilling wouldn't affect Indigenous use of the herd, although evidence suggests caribou are very sensitive to disturbance while calving.

The assessment failed to consider alternatives, the lawsuit says. Nor did it consider transboundary impacts, despite the treaty.  

"(The U.S. Bureau of Land Management) failed to comply with numerous federal statutes and regulations that impose important protections for the lands and resources on the Coastal Plain," the lawsuit says. 

"The agency’s failure threatens the exceptional resources of the Coastal Plain and the subsistence, cultural and spiritual connection between the Gwich’in people and the Coastal Plain."

Although Canadian governments aren't part of the lawsuit, they have spoken in defence of the Porcupine herd before. The federal government, as well as Yukon and the Northwest Territories, has written to the Bureau of Land Management expressing concern about energy development on the calving grounds.  

Tizya-Tramm said the Gwich'in in Canada were refused a chance to address the assessment.

"Almost in any way you could measure it, (the assessment) did not come up to snuff."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 24, 2020

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Bob Weber, The Canadian Press

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