WHITEHORSE — The Yukon government says it does not support a permit for an oil drilling exploration project in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, although experts fear the United States administration will push ahead with the plan.
Yukon Environment Minister Pauline Frost said exploration would impact calving and summer habitats for the Porcupine caribou herd and affect the First Nations that rely on the animals for food and cultural practices.
Her statements follow an environmental impact assessment process for the refuge that included an opportunity to submit comments.
The territory voiced its concerns about the permit and urged the U.S. government to live up to its international commitments to protect the Porcupine caribou, Frost said.
Her federal counterpart, Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, said in a statement that in partnership with Indigenous and territorial governments, Canada has noted "significant" concerns over development plans in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
"I will continue to work with federal officials and our domestic partners to raise our concerns and engage with the United States' review process," he said.
Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm of the Vuntut Gwich'in First Nation in northern Yukon welcomed the statement.
"The Yukon government's coming out to make public statements and support this is something that very much goes to elevate this issue," he said in an interview Tuesday.
But there are also fears that U.S. President Donald Trump's administration will go ahead with the project he said threatens the caribou.
"After being in this area for almost a million years, and helping our people survive an Ice Age, one of the greatest threats happens to have been the Trump administration."
First Nations and environmentalists in Canada have joined a U.S. lawsuit filed in August aimed at overturning a decision that opened the Alaska wilderness to oil and gas exploration.
Malkolm Boothroyd of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, which has signed onto the lawsuit, echoed Tizya-Tramm.
"The approach that we've seen from the current (U.S.) administration has been to push ahead with reckless plans to develop the Arctic refuge in spite of the importance of the refuge for caribou for Gwich’in communities," he said.
"So, we won't be surprised if they continue that pattern of pushing development in the Arctic refuge, but we're ready for it. And at the end of the day, we hope that common sense will prevail."
The U.S. Government is "racing against the clock" with a proposal to conduct seismic testing in the refuge, which would begin on Dec. 31, he said.
Boothroyd said he's concerned seismic crews could work through the end of May, when caribou are calving, and it could disturb the herd.
The nearly 200,000 Porcupine caribou take part in the longest land migration on Earth, traversing over 4,000 kilometres in the Northwest Territories, Yukon and Alaska to give birth on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge every year, according to the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society website.
The region is protected from predators and insects and offers a rich diet of grasses and sedges.
The oil and gas industry has long been looking to access the area even though it's the last five per cent of the Alaska coast that has remained closed to exploration.
Tizya-Tramm said his First Nation is setting up meetings with Congress and senators in Washington, D.C., and beyond to ensure the refuge remains free of development.
"Underneath this land is more than just possible oil and gas," he said.
"This literally represents the future well-being of not just the caribou but our nation, and these lands represent the heart in its fragility, but also its strength."
— By Hina Alam in Vancouver.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 10, 2020.
The Canadian Press