The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, or AIDEA, says it is still moving forward to prepare an environmental impact statement for the contentious Ambler Road, even after Governor Bill Walker has placed a hold on the project.
The Ambler road would branch west off the Dalton Highway near Evansville and run into the copper deposit near Ambler. If the road eventually gets the go-ahead, it will be a mixed bag for the Northwest Arctic Caribou Herd which winters on and migrates through land that the road would bisect.
“I think we’ve got enough information to show that with regard to caribou, it’s not an easy answer,” said Jim Dau, a biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game based in Kotzebue.
“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.”
Dau says the road and development that 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 said caribou can coexist with roads 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.”
In a recent study, biologists from the Wilderness Society, the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Park Service found that about 1.5 to 8.5 percent of the northwest herd’s lichen-rich winter habitat would be displaced by the proposed road. That may not sound like much but Dau said there is 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.”
The caribou can likely learn to live along a road. They have 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 in Alaska. But Dau’s question is one many share: 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 and it will be closed and remediated once mining operations have ceased. The public has been skeptical, especially given its cost in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Dau said 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,” he said.
“That would be a very, very different animal. 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.”
While AIDEA has maintained that the Ambler Road would be industrial-use only, Dau said the public, including subsistence users in villages near the road, would likely desire access for hunting and other uses if the road were built.