The Gwich’in Steering Committee was formed in 1988 by elders and chiefs from every community of the Gwich’in Nation (Canada and the United States) to protect the Porcupine caribou herd and its essential habitats, including the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which is where the herd gives birth to its calves every spring. The effort to protect the herd’s calving grounds has intensified in recent months as the Coastal Plain was opened up for exploration and potential drilling when the US Congress passed its federal tax bill in late 2017.
Renowned for its wildlife, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is inhabited by forty-five species of land and marine mammals. It was established in 1960 as a promise to the American people to preserve “wildlife, wilderness, and recreational values.” Vast and remote, this 19.5-million-acre refuge is the size of South Carolina. While 8.9 million acres are designated as wilderness, the 1.5-million-acre coastal plain, the biological heart of the Refuge, does not yet have wilderness designation. Oil drilling has been proposed on the coastal plain.
The Refuge shares a common border with Ivvavik and Vuntut National Parks in Canada, which in combination constitutes one of the largest conservation areas in the world. North to south, the Refuge extends 200 miles—from the Arctic coast, across the tundra plain, over glacier-capped peaks of the Brooks Range, and into the spruce and birch forests of the Yukon basin. The Refuge preserves a continuum of Arctic and sub-Arctic ecozones.
It contains the greatest variety of plant and animal life of any conservation area in the circumpolar north. It is home to thirty-six species of land mammals; nine marine mammal species live along its coast; thirty-six fish species inhabit its rivers and lakes; and 180 species of birds converge here from six continents.