The story began in 1980 with passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA)—a landmark environmental law signed by President Jimmy Carter that established the 19-million-acre Arctic Refuge. Although the law designated much of the refuge as permanent wilderness, it left the 1.5-million-acre coastal plain in legislative limbo; a future Congress would have the authority to grant the area permanent protection or allow oil drilling. ANILCA instructed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to produce biological baseline studies to give Congress the information it needed to decide the fate of this land.
Among the things they studied was caribou biology. Government scientists sought to understand why the Porcupine caribou herd—one of the largest in the world—always migrates to the Arctic coastal plain to have their young. They found that the area contained three features that caribou mothers and calves needed at birth: abundant plant life providing high-quality nutrition for nursing mothers; winds from the Beaufort Sea reducing the constant, even deadly, harassment from insects; and relatively few predators.
Biologists also considered how drilling would impact the herd’s ability to replenish its population. They knew from studies at other oilfields that caribou mothers avoided industrial areas. If the Arctic Refuge coastal plain became the site of fossil fuel infrastructure, pregnant females would stay away. Instead they would remain in higher-elevation areas to the south, where calves would be exposed to lethal threats: golden eagles nesting on cliffs, wolves denning in mountains, and bears emerging from their hibernation dens. Here, caribou calves would be much more susceptible to predation and death. Scientists concluded that the decline in the Porcupine herd would be considerable.
These findings contradicted the Reagan Administration’s claims that petroleum development was compatible with the Arctic Refuge’s main purposes, including protecting biodiversity and the subsistence rights of Indigenous communities.
In 1987, when President Reagan’s Interior Department submitted to Congress a hefty report about the Arctic Refuge, many FWS scientists were shocked to find out how much the final version differed from their findings. Downplaying the dangers of development, the report recommended that the entire coastal plain be placed on the auction block.