Ambler Road Would Have Mixed Impact on NW Arctic Caribou

Facing halted state spending and budget cuts, the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, or AIDEA, says it’s still moving forward to prepare an environmental impact statement for the contentious Ambler Road, which would branch west off the Dalton Highway near Evansville and run into the copper deposit near Ambler. If the road gets the go-ahead, it’ll be a mixed bag for the Northwest Arctic Caribou Herd, who winter on and migrate through land that the road would bisect.

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“I think we’ve got enough information to show that with regard to caribou, it’s not an easy answer,” said Kotzebue-based ADF&G biologist Jim Dau. “It varies tremendously, seasonally. It’s hard to make a categorical statement saying, ‘roads are terrible for caribou,’ or, ‘they have no effect.’ It’s not that simple.”

Photo: Alaska Department of Fish & Game.
Photo: Alaska Department of Fish & Game.

For Dau, what’s certain is the road and the development that likely comes with it will have long-term impacts on the caribou herd and its users—but the costs and benefits aren’t clear-cut. Dau says caribou can coexist with roads (as many other North American herds live on more developed land), but they fragment habitat and interrupt migration range.

“I think the major impact of roads on caribou is how it affects movements, not just how much lichen is covered by gravel,” said Dau.

In a recent study, biologists from the Wilderness Society, the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Park Service found that only about 1.5 to 8.5 percent of the northwest herd’s lichen-rich winter habitat would be displaced by the proposed road. While that sounds like a negligible impact, Dau says there’s more to consider.

Most of the caribou migrate south in the fall, traveling just to the west of where the road would end, but sometimes, instead of traveling south toward the Seward Peninsula, they hook a left and walk up the Kobuk.

“You know, I’ve seen 50- or 80-thousand caribou walk completely out of the Kobuk into the Koyukuk—the upper Koyukuk drainage—and that’s completely along that road, that proposed road,” said Dau.

The caribou can likely learn to live along a road. They’ve done it time and time again throughout the continent. Dau has studied herds’ movements near the Kuparuk oil fields, near the Red Dog Mine…he’s talked to biologists in Canada whose herds navigate much more developed land than we have in Alaska. But Dau’s question is one many share on this eve of potential development: Will this be the only road, or is it just the first?

AIDEA has said many times that the Ambler Road will be the only road—even that it’ll be closed and remediated once mining operations have ceased. The public has been skeptical, especially given its extravagant cost (between 190 and 400 million dollars), which is expected to be recuperated through tolls from users. Dau says he doesn’t support or oppose the road, but if this is just the beginning of development, he says he’s taking the long-term view.

“If they were going to extend that road from Ambler out to any deep-water port, then it would bisect the NW Arctic herd range and the caribou would have to cross that road multiple times per year. That would be a very, very different animal,” said Dau. “So, I tend to think about long-term things. Not just the next 10 years or 20 years. What’s this road going to look like in 50, 75 years or 100 years? Those are the time frames you need to think about.”

And, while AIDEA has maintained that the Ambler Road would be industrial-use only, Dau says the public, including subsistence users in villages near the road, would likely desire access for hunting and other uses if the road were built.