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Interior Secretary Lied To Congress, Watchdog Group Says

by Cat Lazaroff

Gale Norton, Secretary of War
(ENS) WASHINGTON -- Interior Secretary Gale Norton substantially altered biological findings from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concerning effects of oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge before she transmitted them to Congress, according to documents released October 19 by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

On May 15, 2001, Senator Frank Murkowski, the Alaska Republican who then chaired the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, asked Norton for the Interior Department's official assessment of the impacts of oil drilling on the Porcupine caribou herd in the Arctic Refuge (ANWR). Secretary Norton asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the agency responsible for managing ANWR, with developing answers to those questions.

The resulting USFWS findings were transmitted to Norton's office. However, Norton's official reply to Senator Murkowski on July 11 was markedly different from the scientific input she had received, show the documents obtained by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a national alliance of local, state and federal resource professionals.

Murkowski sent Norton a series of questions to "help Congress analyze this issue" -- the proposal raised by the Bush administration that a portion of the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge --a site known as the 1002 Area -- be opened to oil and natural gas exploration.

Four of the questions relayed to Norton concerned the 130,000 member Porcupine caribou herd, which calves in and around the coastal plain. The region is considered sacred by the Gwich'in nation, a native Arctic people which depend on the caribou herd as a traditional source of food, skins and other necessities.

Questions relating to caribou included:

  1. What is the Porcupine caribou herd's historic calving range?
  2. Are there portions of the 1002 area where core calving does not historically occur?
  3. What has been the impact of development in Prudhoe Bay on the Central Arctic caribou herd?
  4. Over 1,000 miles of seismic exploration was conducted in the 1002 area during the winters of 1984 and 1985. Concurrently, a well was drilled on Native lands over two winters in the area. Did this exploration have any negative impact on the Porcupine caribou herd?

The variations in the answers provided to Norton by the USFWS, and those which Norton transmitted to the Senate, tell a story about the disagreements between the Interior Secretary and the Interior Department's prime wildlife agency -- which does not yet have a Bush administration appointed leader.

For example, while the USFWS did not provide any figure for the size of the herd's calving range, Secretary Norton told Congress that the "calving range of the Porcupine caribou herd (PCH) covers an area of approximately 8.9 million acres."

Changing numbers, concealing information
In response to the question regarding calving within the 1002 Area, the USFWS noted that "there have been PCH [Porcupine caribou herd] calving concentrations within the 1002 Area in 27 of the last 30 years." The Interior Department changed those numbers to say "Concentrated calving occurred primarily outside of the 1002 Area in 11 of the last 18 years."

Norton spokesperson Mark Pfeifle said that Norton simply made an error in her testimony -- saying "outside" when she meant to say "inside."

Yet Norton also told Congress that, "Surveys indicate that no calving occurred in the 1002 area in 2001." The USFWS did not provide that information; in fact, surveys for the year 2001 had not yet been conducted by the time that Norton testified before Congress, PEER says.

Norton told Congress that the herd's core calving area "varies from year to year depending on snow melt conditions.... Furthermore, since 1983, the concentrated calving area has never extended to the undeformed area west of the Marsh Creek anticline in the 1002 Area" -- the primary region where oil exploration is being considered.

The USFWS, however, told Norton that, "calving concentrations have not occurred on a relatively small portion (Canning delta and northern coastal margin) of the Arctic Refuge '1002 Area.' Portions of the eastern segment of the Central Arctic Herd use the Canning River delta area for calving."

The USFWS also emphasized that the "calving and early summer seasons (late May to early July) are the periods of greatest sensitivity of caribou."

Map of Porcupine caribou herd calving from 1983-1999 (Map courtesy USFWS)

The agency provided figures to Norton showing concentrations of caribou in the 1002 Area. Norton did not pass these figures on to Congress, instead offering a different figure showing only figures for a time period in which the caribou used less of the 1002 Area.

Norton testified that, "In years when the snow melt occurs late in the spring, as it did this past year, the concentrated calving area tends to be further to the south and east into Canada outside the 1002 area entirely."

However, the USFWS warned that "Snow melt conditions and associated plant phenology vary annually. Therefore, caribou require free passage to these variable areas before giving birth, and maternal females with young must be able to freely move to optimal forage throughout the early summer season."

In fact, fewer caribou calves are born and fewer survive in years when the majority of calves are not born in the ANWR coastal plain, the USFWS noted.

Drilling in Alaska: Over Dead Gwich'in Bodies
Regarding the effects of oil development in Prudhoe Bay on the Central Arctic caribou herd, Norton testified that "The Central Arctic Herd has grown since the beginning of oil field development from an estimated 5,000 animals in 1975 to 20,000 animals in 1997."

The USFWS noted that the herd actually declined during the early 1990s, then rebounded. During periods of severe weather, the portions of the herd living near oil development areas declined far more than the portions of the herd living far from human development, the agency emphasized.

The agency also detailed a shift in caribou range and calving grounds -- away from the industrial zone created by the oil drillers.

Regarding Senator Murkowski's fourth question, concerning the effects of seismic exploration on the Porcupine caribou herd, Norton claimed that "There is no evidence that the seismic exploration activities or the drilling of the Kaktovik Inupiat Corporation exploratory well on Native lands have had any significant negative impact on the Porcupine caribou herd."

But the USFWS noted that, "No studies were conducted to determine the effects of the above activities" on the herd. While the agency said "it is unlikely that there have been significant or direct effects" to the herd, "This does not necessarily mean that future exploration activities would have the same consequences. Rather, these activities must be evaluated on a case by case basis."

Norton's spokesperson Pfeifle noted that Secretary Norton relied not only on the information provided by the USFWS, but also on input from non-agency sources.

One source Pfeifle cited was a peer reviewed study by the Wildlife Society Bulletin, which concluded that oil development has had little impact on caribou in Prudhoe Bay. The study was funded in part by oil company BP Exploration.

"Secretary Norton is fully committed to using peer reviewed science in determining the best course of action regarding issues such as ANWR," Pfeifle said.

PEER charged that the extensive changes made by Norton belie her repeated promises during her Senate confirmation hearings to "provide [Congress] the best scientific evaluation of the environmental consequences...[of] any exploration and production" in the Arctic Refuge.

"It appears Secretary Norton misled Congress and broke her pledge to faithfully convey the best science on the Arctic Refuge," said PEER national field director Eric Wingerter. "Unless Ms. Norton was the victim of her own overzealous staff, she should have the decency to resign."

© 2001 Environment News Service and reprinted with permission

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