In March, a group of researchers announced the results of a multi-year study assessing the impacts to caribou habitat of a potential service road from the Dalton Highway to the Ambler Mining District.
Their research is one of the first wildlife biology studies looking at whether a road through a stretch of the Interior would disrupt the Western Arctic Caribou Herd, which is vital to subsistence users across Western Alaska.
Kyle Joly is with the National Park Service, which, along with the Wilderness Society and U.S. Geological Survey, conducted the study. He says the results showed minimal effects from a road on the areas where caribou spend their winters.
“We do not expect that impacts to winter range will be great from this one road,” he said.
But Joly is quick to caution that the results are one small glimpse of the full picture.
“You know this is just the first phase of the project, and the authors of the paper and other researchers are working on other aspects to look at how the road might impact other aspects of caribou ecology,” Joly said. “More than likely this will be just be the first one in a long suite of studies.”
The study looked at a swath of land starting by Bettles, and moving westward towards the community of Ambler in the Northwest Arctic Borough. That’s the path proposed by the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority as part of a Roads to Resources project.
Joly and his research partners spent four years monitoring where caribou spend their time, and cataloging the environmental factors that led the animals to pick those spots. The researchers mapped three potential routes the industrial road could go, then checked how big of a disturbance each one would be to the conditions caribou seem to like.
Joly says the results showed just 1.5-8.5 percent of the favorable range would be upset by the road. But he’s cautious about what that means for development.
“Well what shouldn’t be read into it is that there’s no impact to the caribou or the Western Arctic herd,” Joly said. “What we did is look at just one aspect of caribou ecology, which is winter range—just for this singular road”
Many of the ecological effects on caribou, Joly says, wouldn’t register until after a road were built, and can’t yet be studied.
“So we did not look at any potential impacts to migration, any potential impacts of increased harvest that might come from a road, and we also didn’t look at any potential development that might be facilitated by this road,” Joly said.
The caribou habitat study is set to be published in the journal Arctic later this year.