Dr Simone Schleper is a postdoctoral researcher in the Moving Animal project, researching how the phenomenon of animal migration has been studied, understood, and managed, especially in cases of human-wildlife conflict. Her monograph Planning for the Planet appeared with Berghahn in 2019.

What do caribous on treadmills have to do with Alaskan oil? Alaskan wildlife conservation research and oil development have a long and entangled history. It is a complex one, too, in which the oil industry has funded various types of ecological research and in which wildlife professionals have been both against and in favor of resource development in the Arctic. This blog explores the relationship between moving animals such as caribous, and the construction of oil pipelines in Alaska.

Research into the conservation of Alaskan wildlife, such as seasonally migrating herds of caribous, and oil development have a long and entangled history. Oil was discovered close to Prudhoe Bay in 1968. In 1977 oil began to flow through the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System. From the start, caribous, crossing as part of their movements through the area of the planned pipeline, had been a chief concern for a local oppositional alliance by environmental and indigenous interest groups. Amongst researchers and wildlife professionals, too, the building of the pipeline resulted in a large number of caribou research projects that sought to understand the physiology, ecology, and the movement of Alaska’s nomadic ungulates.

“Caribou under Trans-Alaska Pipeline” (Photo: Tim Craig, Bureau of Land Management Alaska, 2004, CC BY 2.0)

One of these, at times quite creative, studies was conducted by Steven Fancy, a PhD candidate at the University of Alaska’s zoology department. Between 1980 and 1983, Fancy captured eight female caribou calves of the Delta Caribou Herd, approximately 110 km south of Fairbanks, Alaska. Rearing them on lamb milk and egg yolk, he handled them often, led them on a rope, and regularly placed yoghurt cups with the bottoms removed on the calves’ muzzles. In the following months, Fancy custom built a hydraulic treadmill capable of belt speeds of up to 10 km/h. As the caribous trod on the treadmill, a gas-tight muzzle mask collected their expired air. On other days, Fancy walked the caribous outside in the snow after having attached them with masks to respiratory balloons.

What did caribous on treadmills have to do with the Trans-Alaska Pipeline? Fancy conducted a study to measure the energy expenditure of female caribous, the energy and calories that his caribous needed during different types of movement, for instance when walking around a pipeline construction site. Based on the experimental data and his recorded observations, Fancy constructed a conceptual model in which the daily energy budgets of his four-legged fosterlings were determined by different variables such as the caribous’ movement, fasting, calving, or lactating. Fancy’s work, then, was much more than a flashy science project with little applicability in the real world. Bioenergetics experiments and models such as Fancy’s, up to today, are used to hold at bay representatives of the oil industry who want to drill for oil and gas in the North American Arctic. As such, Fancy’s work recently gained new relevance in August 2020 with plans by the Trump administration to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) for drilling.

“Sign at the visitor area of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System” (Photo: mrccos, 2010, CC BY 2.0)

Fancy’s research could be used to argue against the oil industry. It was useful, too, for wildlife experts, who used Fancy’s work to counter the claims of some of their colleagues in favour of the planned pipeline project. A joint statement by wildlife professionals at the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and the International Biological Program (IBP), drafted in 1971, had proposed that the pipeline project, if properly executed, could present a proof of concept for ecologically sound development. In the following years, crossings in the form of gravel ramps and buried sections had been put in place to assure free passage to caribous on the move. Rising caribou population numbers and observed crossings in the 1970s and 1980s seemed to suggest that the animals were in fact able to adapt to changes in their environment and mitigation efforts were deemed successful.

Despite growing caribou populations, local wildlife professionals worried that successful crossings observed in Prudhoe Bay would encourage a spillover of oil extraction to other parts of the Arctic ecosystem. One of the areas suspected to be rich in oil and gas had always been the ANWR on the northern coast of Alaska. The refuge is traditional Gwich’in land and consists of protected boreal forest and alpine tundra that support, next to caribous, Artic foxes, musk oxen, three types of bears, and several hundred bird species.

Bioenergetics research such as Fancy’s that held the potential to counter the powerful and visible environmental indicator of growing caribou numbers. Caribous that took detours and avoided some parts of the pipeline, bioenergetics researchers like Fancy argued, required more calories. This was true especially for lactating females and young calves, important animals for the future of the herd. And calories were hard to come by in the harsh Alaskan environment. Bioenergetics, thus, presented a convincing argument about why oil development potentially threatened whole caribou populations.

The rise of bioenergetics research then, although complex, relying on a mechanical understanding of animals and their environment, and based on very little direct observation, holds important insights for everyone interested in the research, management, and representation of moving animals. Not least it points to the potential pitfalls of single-indicator environmental impact statements and the difficulties to oppose these. At least until recently, this type of research has contributed to the protection of wildlife reserves such as the ANWR from additional large-scale resource extraction projects.