Thursday, December 10, 2009

Trouble and Danger in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Refuge expert Fran Mauer hikes along Mancha Creek; and, bottom, Arctic douglasia, a plant limited to the north slope of the Yukon.

This is the second in a 3-part story. Scroll down if you'd like to start with the first one. From the Herald-Citizen, Sunday, July 23, 2006.
As an expert on the wildlife of the Arctic Refuge, Fran Mauer often got calls from hikers proposing a journey through this wilderness. One guy planned to traverse the Refuge on just the food he could find and wanted to know if that was possible.

“It is if you’ve got the stomach of a caribou,” Fran had told him. Fran said he never heard of him again. Another time there was a solo hiker who had nothing to eat but a bag of Power Bars. Power Bars every day. Power Bars for breakfast, Power Bars for lunch, and Power Bars for supper.

The north country attracts strange people with cockeyed notions. Alaskans call them “queer ducks.”

Fran was the assistant leader of our group of six as we hiked through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge this past June. He is a former wildlife biologist for the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a superb storyteller with a skewed sense of humor.

But he’d been serious about the caribou. They have the stomach for the food they can find here, which includes lichens I would not want to eat. He showed me lichens whose names alone are off-putting: elk horn, white worms, dead man’s fingers, to list a few. Their names are accurate.

Groups of caribou streamed past us each day, all migrating north to their ancestral calving grounds on the Arctic coastal plain, members of the 123,000-strong Porcupine herd. The cows go first and were already there, Fran said. We were seeing yearlings and bulls headed to join them. It is that coastal plain that some want to drill for oil.

There are plenty of animals here big enough to kill us and eat us—including wolves, black bears, and grizzly bears, especially grizzlies, which tend to be unpredictable.

We walked in the season when the sun never sets; plants and animals work overtime. We kept up a silly line of chatter, which had the benefit of telling grizzlies we were around. On another level, maybe the talk was our way of keeping company and asserting our small selves against the immensity of a wilderness that makes one feel diminished, a wilderness where humans are not needed at all.

Ethel, Glen, Fran and I were hiking along one day—the other two hikers were ahead, out of earshot. Ethel Chiang is a former emergency room doctor. Her husband, Glen Freimuth, is an anthropologist, a burly man with a white beard who looks like Ernest Hemingway—two world gadabouts from Illinois.

My hands and forearms were covered by lacerations I’d suffered while climbing two spruce trees. Those trees are covered with sharp stubby limbs that can puncture and tear skin. I’d put a glove on one hand for protecting the sores while deflecting brush.

“I’m doing my Michael Jackson thing this morning,” I said.

“Now there’s a queer duck for you,” Ethel said.

“We’re on the march again,” I said.

Fran began singing, Marching to Pretoria. Then he asked Glen if Pretoria was in Illinois. They decided Peoria was in Illinois, but not Pretoria.

“Roto-Rooter,” Glen said.


“It’s the place where Roto-Rooter is.”

“Oh, is it there?” Fran replied.

“That’s where it got its start.” An anthropologist should know.

Fran mentioned how he’d once had his sewer line reamed out.

“Kinda like a colonoscopy,” Doctor Ethel said.

Talk turned to forget-me-nots, which Fran said he’d told his Japanese wife were “forgive-me-a-lots.” She didn’t believe him.

Thus we repelled grizzlies.

Accustomed to always packing a big gun, Fran was thinking about bears, especially so since he’d lost his bear spray. “There’s no place we can go where they can’t,” he said. He told me that when a man and a bear suddenly meet they both have the same thought: “Kill that thing!”

A grizzly had approached our camp just the previous morning. I enjoyed the whole thing—I wasn’t there. I watched it from above. We were camped on a gravely flat next to Mancha Creek. Across the creek an unnamed mountain rose up steeply. Its slope was covered by spires sticking up like crocodile teeth.

Bill Curzie, who patrols second base in age group World Series baseball, christened the hill “Cathedral Mountain.” “Curzie” rhymes with “Jersey” and so his baseball handle is Jersey Curzie, but I call him Jersey Bill.

Group leader Don, Glen, Ethel and I decided to climb the mountain and check out a cave we’d spotted, curious to see if it was a bear’s den. Part way up we paused to rest. We gazed steeply down on the tents—they looked small and fragile. In the flat to the left, I saw what I at first thought was a caribou, and said so.

“That’s a bear!” Don said. Easy to tell once it moved a bit. It was a golden blond grizzly. “That’s a big one,” Don noted. The bear meandered and then headed toward our tents.

There were two people in camp—Fran, who had lost his bear spray, and Jersey Bill, who’d been worried enough about bears to bring a shotgun, until forbidden to do so. They didn’t know the big grizzly was coming. We could have yelled down. But we wanted to see what he was going to do first.

The bear came to the creek bank, ready to splash across—after which it would be 130 yards from the tents, as I later paced it. He stopped and put his nose up like a bird dog sniffing quail. Then he suddenly wheeled around and trotted off. Good bear. Bill and Fran were denied some excitement.

Fran had told me how fast a grizzly can go when it hits full stride. “(When he charges) his back feet are scratching his ears,” was the way he put it.

Fran had told me about a bear charging him once. The bear stood up 35 or 40 yards away, looked at him, then dropped down and came fast.

“It was like everything switched into slow motion. I could see the drool or slime coming from the corners of his mouth.” Fran made a motion like saliva trailing back.

“How far did he come before he stopped?” I asked.

“Stand here,” he said. He took six steps forward and turned facing me.

“It was that far. I know because I dropped my notebook, and where he turned he left hair on a tree.”

Fran’s partner had been going for the rifle, but couldn’t get it in time—they’d put it under the rain fly to keep it dry.

Death by grizzly can be quick, I expect—the animal is so big and powerful, it can tear one’s head off. Fran had been within seconds of oblivion when the bear turned, an act Fran didn’t expect and doesn’t understand. A true scientist, Fran came back with the data: six steps, the distance from the notebook he dropped to the hair the bear left.

Fran risked his life working at the Refuge, a land he loves. He’s not inclined to surrender it to oil drilling. His Gale Norton story illustrates the fight, one that continues to this day.

In 2001 after President Bush appointed Gale Norton Secretary of the Interior, Frank Murkowski, then senator, now governor of Alaska, asked Interior for a report of historical caribou calving on the coastal plain in the 1002 study area where drilling was being considered. Murkowski, a proponent of drilling, may have thought he could get a useful answer from Norton, who also favored drilling. Murkowski, who headed the Senate and Natural Resources Committee, needed to show that the plain was not important to caribou.

The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), a part of the Department of Interior, was given the job of preparing the report. That agency also had the data and expertise.

“I wrote the report,” Fran told me. His management reviewed it, making what Fran called “editorial corrections” and approved the report for release to Interior. That was in May 2001. The record showed that for 27 of 30 years, there had been concentrations of calving (excluding lesser-important scattered calving).

In June 2001, Gale Norton visited the Arctic Refuge. Fran was given the job of escorting her about. He spent parts of two days with her, a total of five hours, explaining features of the Refuge.

“We sat on the plane facing each other. The Regional Director sat next to me nervous that I’d say something I shouldn’t,” Fran said. In a total of five hours with her, “She didn’t ask one substantial question.”

She appeared uninterested in facts that failed to support her drilling view, and later called the coastal plain “a flat, white nothing.”

When Interior released the calving report, it had completely changed. It said that for 11 out of 18 years there was no concentrated calving in the 1002 area—a stunning reversal of the results submitted by USFWS, which said that for 27 of 30 years there was concentrated calving.

Someone blew the whistle, making the original report available to the press. The Washington Post broke the story in October, 2001, on the very day Norton was addressing a meeting of environmental journalists. Attending reporters, armed with the Post story, questioned her about the discrepancies in the Interior report. Her explanation was simple: “typographical errors.”

At the very least—given the nature of the changes—that answer lacked credibility. The episode supports troubling doubts about truth in government.

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