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Most important of all are the more than 130,000 caribou of the Porcupine herd, which migrates each spring onto the coastal plain to calve. These caribou are at the heart of the environmentalists' case against drilling. In late May, the animals arrive on the plain after traveling 400 miles around the mountains, to give birth far from their predators: the eagles, wolves and grizzlies that live principally in the mountains. After calving, they forage on the rich greenery that springs up in the 24-hour sunshine. As new snow approaches, they return to the forests on the south slopes 400 miles away, where they find shelter and feed off lichen growing on trees. If drilling begins in the refuge, environmentalists fear, the migration will be disrupted.
"Caribou will move away from oil fields as disturbance increases," says David Klein, professor emeritus at the Institute of Arctic Biology at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. In the Prudhoe oil field, he says, the 25,000-head Central Arctic herd of caribou was displaced from oil developments. "The pipeline and [nearby] haul road have essentially fractured the Central Arctic herd into two groups," Klein says.
It is impossible to know how the Porcupine herd will be affected by oil drilling. But Evon Peter and the other members of the Gwich'in tribe fear the worst. Peter lives in Arctic Village, pop. 130, on the southern slopes of the Brooks Range. The caribou come through his area every fall, and the Gwich'in hunt them to feed the whole village. "The caribou for us are like the buffalo were to the Indians of the Lower 48," says Peter. The Gwich'in are worried drilling will drive the caribou away into Canada forever. "Our struggle," says Peter, "is spiritual--about dignity, respect and the ways people relate to each other."
Dignity and respect are in a battle against money. Alaska residents pay no income tax or sales tax and get an annual dividend from the state's oil earnings--last year it was roughly $2,000 for every man, woman and child. Not surprisingly, drilling in ANWR is widely supported, and Bush's election was met with glee. But many Alaskans have no illusion that the decision to drill, if it comes, will be part of a coherent energy policy.
"What it is going to come down to is a couple of hundred guys in D.C. pushing the panic button, because that's the way it always happens," says Kaktovik mayor Lon Sonsalla, who supports drilling but is unhappy at how little the local communities have been consulted on the issue.