Sunday, October 19, 2003
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Caribou at a Crossroad

A new book argues that oil development in the Arctic makes life miserable for wildlife, in sometimes surprising ways.

Earthwatch Radio

The debate over whether to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has centered on a huge herd of caribou that live there. The Porcupine herd, named for a river, breeds on a coastal plain that may hold billions of barrels of oil. Chad Kister, the author of a new book called "Arctic Quest," says the caribou have nowhere else to go.

"And it's the only place that they have, because the coastal plain is surrounded on one side by the Arctic Ocean and the other side by the jagged peaks of the Brooks mountain range, and they only have the narrow strip of coastal plain in which to breed."

The oil industry contends that it will use only a small part of the coastal plain. But Kister says roads, pipelines and airstrips will disrupt the whole area. And he says oil operations around nearby Prudhoe Bay prove the point.

"There used to be 17 percent of the central Arctic caribou herd that used the Prudhoe Bay region for breeding. Now it's only one percent. And the caribou need to move in order to survive. In addition to migrating almost a thousand miles twice a year, they also move on average more than 20 miles a day because they have to get away from mosquitoes."

Kister says a single caribou can lose several pints of blood each day to Alaska's swarming mosquitoes, so they have to keep moving.

"Roads and pipelines hinder this movement. Caribou tend to avoid developed areas and lose a lot more blood from mosquito bites because it keeps them from moving to escape the mosquitoes."

Kister says that can harm the health of the caribou. And he says it illustrates how development can disrupt wildlife in unexpected ways.

Script for Monday, September 22, 2003


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