The U.S. is shirking diplomatic responsibilities abroad and rolling back environmental protections at home. But the two crises are intersecting along the U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico, with disastrous results for conservation.
At both its borders, the U.S. is eroding common causes and seems intent on defiling its neighbors. From the sensitive natural habitats and Native burial, spiritual, and other sites that the border wall is destroying, to sanctioning drilling in the Porcupine caribou calving grounds which the Gwich’in call “the sacred place where life begins,” these acts impudently erode cultural and natural resources all three countries share. Conservation diplomacy is dying.
Lawsuits over the Mexico-U.S. border wall are now joined by lawsuits over the Arctic, the latter of which the organization I work for has signed onto. As a conservation scientist who’s researched large mammals and now works for an organization in the Yukon intent on protecting wilderness landscapes, I’ve come to understand that our conservation goals cannot simply stop at national boundaries and must respect the Indigenous groups who for centuries have managed the land in a sustainable way and depend on it to this day.
When I was stationed in the Division of International Conservation as a science policy fellow with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), transboundary conservation was on my mind a lot. Working primarily in the African Elephant Program, colleagues and I spearheaded an analysis of the extent to which Africa’s elephants range across borders. After months of crunching data, we determined that three-quarters of Africa’s elephants are members of transboundary populations. An elephant present in Botswana in the evening was very often recorded in Namibia, Zambia, or Angola by morning. Conservation must be harmonized to transcend political boundaries, which animals continually swim, fly, or walk across.
While my work was focused on places thousands of miles from North America, it was in Washington, DC, where I learned about the Trilateral Committee. Every time I heard it mentioned my ears perked up. According to its website, it “facilitates international cooperation for conserving the living heritage of North America” and it is headed by directors of the Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS), the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources of Mexico (SEMARNAT), and FWS. The Trilateral Committee has been meeting for more than two decades and its 25th annual meeting, set to convene this year in Mérida, Mexico, was postponed citing covid-19 as the reason. Presumably, there may have been political reasons, too.
The Trump administration’s disregard for the natural world is unprecedented, and it’s made more acute at a time when we need to be thinking about the bigger conservation picture. Take the decision to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s fragile coastal plain to drilling. Operations there would have impacts that ripple far beyond the oil rigs and pipelines.
The relationship between the Gwich’in people and caribou runs so deep that, in testimony before a U.S. Congressional subcommittee last year, Vuntut Gwitchin Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm said that “this development on [Alaska’s] coastal plain amounts to the cultural genocide of the entire Gwich’in nation.”
After the U.S. Department of Interior released its Arctic drilling record of decision on Aug. 17, more than 50 of us gathered at the wharf by the Yukon River with signs like “Caribou Without Borders” and “Stand With The Gwich’in.”
“This is the closest to development we have ever seen,” Pauline Frost, a citizen of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation and Government of Yukon Minister of Environment, told reporters that day. Addressing the protesters, she told us that, “we’re going to work together and unite with everyone to protect the caribou, which is truly our livelihood.”
The caribou have even become the symbol of the Yukon’s covid-19 response. Through the bullhorn, we were reminded to maintain a safe social distance of six feet—or one caribou length—apart. As a U.S. national working in the Yukon, Canada, on a U.S.-Mexico-Canada (USMCA) work permit, I felt extra responsibility to be at this rally. As a first generation immigrant-settler, I look to these land’s original stewards, who, earlier this year, declared a climate emergency. Finally, as a scientist, I am aware of the limitations of scientific knowledge, often restricted to discrete sites and seasons and by political boundaries, unlike transnational and long-term Indigenous knowledge.
Marches, rallies, and declarations alone are just the tip of a long struggle to protect an ecosystem under threat. There are now four lawsuits against the decision to develop the coastal plain, including from attorneys general in 15 states; Gwich’in tribal governments in Venetie and Arctic Village, Alaska; the National Audubon Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, Center for Biological Diversity and Friends of the Earth; and one led by the Gwich’in Steering Committee and joined by 12 other groups, including the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society Yukon, the organization I currently work for. Gwich’in Steering Committee’s Executive Director Bernadette Demientieff has pointed out how the Gwich’in living on the Canadian side have been “utterly shut out” in talks with the government, which is a huge oversight given the cross-border ramifications of drilling.
“It’s to nobody’s surprise that the department gave the go-ahead to the most aggressive scenario imaginable,” Malkolm Boothroyd, my colleague who’s spent many formative moments on the Coastal Plain, recently wrote in The Narwhal of the U.S. Department of Interior’s decision. “Our lawsuit argues the review of oil and gas development failed to value Indigenous rights and threats to wildlife” including vital cross-border caribou habitat.
U.S.-Mexico-Canada cooperation goes well beyond the economic realm. Culture, identity, and nature intersect as one bioregion, and the threat of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the U.S. is hardly the only threat. The Trump administration seems intent on eroding North America’s efforts to restore and conserve not only wildlife but also the age-old interactions that Indigenous groups have with the continent’s flora and fauna.
A century ago, wood bison disappeared from the U.S. Wood bison—the Western Hemisphere’s largest mammal—have pointed beards, are taller-humped, and heavier set than their plains cousins. These boreal bison once roamed the western Northwest Territories, Yukon, and Alaska. Their disappearance was attributed to climate change coupled with the same cause of extirpation of tens of millions of their plains cousins the century before: overhunting.
Their loss created not just an ecological void, but a cultural one. Wood bison hold symbolic, spiritual, and practical values for Indigenous Alaskans, especially the Athabascans after whom the wood bison is named (Bison bison athabascae). Wood bison, whose bones are scattered across Alaska, whose history is still richly told by Alaska Natives, and whose habitat still exists and awaits them in the thousands of square miles in Alaska, are finally on the comeback trail. Restoration is only possible because Canada still harbors wood bison.
In 2015, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game reintroduced the first herd of 130 wood bison from Canada to the lower Innoko-Yukon rivers area in western Alaska. The program was led by biologist Tom Seaton. When I met Seaton in 2018, he was envisioning herds crossing back and forth between Canada and the U.S. without human intervention. He was optimistic that Canada’s growing 1,500-strong Yukon wood bison herd—the Aishihik herd near Alaska’s eastern border—would become North America’s first cross-border bison herd (before the border wall, there was hope that Mexico-U.S. would have a cross-border bison herd, too, between Chihuahua, Mexico and New Mexico). Today, there is one small population of 140 wild wood bison in western Alaska, making them the rarest endemic large mammal in the U.S.
“Much like the generations of people who saved bison from extinction in the 20th century, the next generation of people in Alaska must carry the torch and complete the restoration so that one day, wood bison can return to their revered place as part of the culture and food supply of Alaskans,” Seaton told me. Seaton’s vision is one that is shared by people who’ve devoted their entire lives to conservation and restoration.
It is not an overstatement that without Canada, the U.S. would not have wood bison. Without Mexico, the U.S. would not have jaguars. Without the overwintering grounds in Mexico, the U.S. and Canada would not enjoy colorful migratory birds like warblers, tanagers and orioles every spring and summer. Iconic wildlife such as California condors would not be rebounding to the same extent without cooperation across borders. In other words, North America’s rich biodiversity, restoration and rewilding projects, and some of the world’s last big wildlife migrations exist as one continent.
As part of my current job, I’ve strived to emphasize the cross-border nature of nature when given the opportunity. In a recent virtual presentation, we made recommendations to an independent panel formulating a modern Yukon Mineral Development Strategy. To demonstrate that any strategy for the Yukon must factor in its neighbors, I reminded the panel that contamination from mines can easily flow across international boundaries and that the 1,980-mile Yukon River flows from northern British Columbia through the Yukon to Alaska before emptying into the Bering Sea. I read aloud from the U.S.-Canada Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909, which says that “waters flowing across the boundaries shall not be polluted on either side to the injury of health or property on the other.” I used a map made by the Yukon Salmon Sub-Committee to show how chinook salmon move in the opposite direction, upriver.
Mining’s impacts are not limited to waterways and fish. The Coffee Gold Mine Project, proposed by Newmont Goldcorp in the Yukon’s Dawson Region which abuts Alaska, could affect two cross-border caribou herds that the Yukon and Alaska share: the Forty Mile and Nelchina herds. As the fight for the Arctic Refuge Porcupine caribou herd rages on, Canada must practice what it preaches.
All is not lost. Sonora and Arizona still share jaguars. Yukon and Alaska still share caribou. And, importantly, people are showing up to stand in solidarity with Indigenous peoples to defend both the southern and northern borderlands. Indigenous Knowledge is the vaccine for the type of short-term colonialist thinking that erodes landscapes and shifts baselines by prioritizing profits over the planet.
Before marching over to a busy intersection on Main Street in Whitehorse, Yukon, where we chanted at three major Canadian banks to divest from destruction, we were reminded by community organizer Asad Chishti that, “apart from subsistence, apart from nourishment, what the caribou do for the Gwich’in is this: They make them happy. And there is no doubt that in moments like these, we could use a little happiness.”
The people in the crowd were standing in solidarity with the communities on both sides of the border, something that settler governments are failing to do. We need to listen to Indigenous voices and think continentally again. At stake is North America’s living heritage.
Katarzyna Nowak is a fellow of The Safina Center, conservation scientist with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society Yukon, and co-creator of the Request a Woman in STEMM database. Views expressed here are her own.