ARCTIC VILLAGE, ALASKA — Whether or not the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge ever sees oil drilling, the Gwich'in people there, whose life is based on hunting and fishing, already see the environmental impact of an oil-based economy.
In recent years, they have noticed weather changes that they believe have adversely impacted the porcupine caribou herd, and they suspect that global warming and perhaps a thinning in the protective ozone layer may have something to do with it.
Summers are hotter, winter days when the temperature plunges far below zero are fewer, and the timberline is creeping higher up the mountainsides. Warmer weather can also be associated with more moisture - and therefore more snowfall. This may be why female caribou have been giving birth to their young before they reach the coastal plain. That can reduce the survival rate of their young.
"Everything is out of whack," says Faith Gemmill, who was raised in Arctic Village. "Last year in the village, it only went below minus-40 degrees F., once."
"One of the things I've noticed in just my short lifetime is that the lakes we used to hunt ducks on are gone by mid-July," says Shawn Martinez, a young man who works for the Gwich'in Steering Committee, a group of Alaskan and Canadian representatives chosen to lobby for Gwich'in cultural survival in the debate over oil development. "A lot of the lakes are disappearing."
Village elders see similar patterns. "I don't remember it being this hot when I was a kid," said Gideon James last week when temperatures rose to near 80 degrees and he spent the day in shorts and a tank top.
The porcupine herd has dropped from 180,000 to 129,000 over the past decade. Herd sizes naturally swell and dwindle, but the Gwich'in worry that this current trend could be man-made. "The caribou are very sensitive," says Calvin Tritt, who was sent away to an Indian boarding school in Oklahoma, then spent three years in the Marine Corps and worked on the Trans Alaska Pipeline before returning to Arctic Village.
"Pollution, acid rain, the ozone layer - it's definitely hurting not only the caribou, but other wildlife," says Mr. Tritt.
Biologists, petroleum geologists, and politicians will continue to argue the pros and cons of drilling in the ANWR. But the Gwich'in claim an expertise that draws on thousands of years of life on this land.
"The oil companies and the scientists don't know," says Ms. Gemmill. "They don't live our way of life, and they don't have anything to lose."