Sunday, June 14, 2015

Where are all the animals?

Considering the conditions outdoors in the Arctic, it's amazing anything survives the winter at all.  Yet bears, moose, Dall sheep, caribou, muskoxen, foxes, hares, ravens, boreal owls, lemmings, voles, mosquitos, spiders, wood frogs, and many, many more species accomplish this feat.  More species still live off the land or waters offshore in summer, and migrate south in winter.  Many common American songbirds do this, as do whales and other marine mammals.

And people come to the Arctic in summer, too, many hoping to see moose, brown (grizzly) bears, caribou, and muskoxen.  And many arrive in Coldfoot disappointed after traveling for 6 or 7 white-knuckled hours on the Dalton highway and seeing nothing larger than a snowshoe hare.

This leads them to ask, inevitably, "Where are all the animals?"  I heard this question twice in short succession one day, and I thought someone was playing a practical joke.

The answer is fairly simple:  the Arctic can't support very many animals.  The variety may be surprisingly large, if you (like me) instinctively think it must be impossible for anything to live here year round.  But each species has adapted to depend on different sources of food, in different habitats.

Moose stay in the boreal forests all year.  In summer they eat a wide range of plants, while in winter they enjoy dormant willow buds and other rather woody foods.  Moose scat from winter looks like particle board when you break it open.

Caribou and muskoxen both roam the North Slope, where no trees grow.  They browse ground vegetation, caribou preferring areas with some snow cover in winter and less severe winds.  Caribou eat lichens they find under the snow.  Muskoxen tolerate wind and cold much more easily, and browse grasses on windswept areas where the snow is blown away for them.

Dall sheep, meanwhile, stick to mountainsides and higher hills, where their sure footing allows them to find food while other animals falter.  And bears roam mountains, forests, and streams in summer, storing up fat to burn during their winter hibernation.

The point is, all these animals have found ways to survive up here, but they all depend on separate sources of food, and they all roam vast areas to find enough food to survive the year.

Historically, humans were no different.  Alaska was home to two major, distinct cultures before the arrival of and settlement by Europeans.  One depended on hunting seals, whales, walruses, and other creatures found on Alaska's coasts.  These people were commonly called Eskimos, but the term (meaning "eaters of raw flesh") is not held in high regard, and most people within this group prefer terms that refer to their more local communities:  Inuit, Inupiat, or Yupik, for instance.

The other major group of humans living here since the last retreat of glaciers are the Alaskan Athabaskans.  These people generally lived in the interior, hunting moose and bears, trapping small game, fishing, and collecting berries and other wild plants.

Life for all residents of Alaska prior to the arrival of firearms was never easy, and certainly not guaranteed.  Overfishing one river too long could cause the fish population to drop to the point of no longer supporting a human community, forcing them to find a new river to fish from or another source of summer food.  Populations of other game were always in flux.  Caribou might wander into the interior for an unknown reason, only to then be followed by packs of wolves.  Then when the caribou were hunted into oblivion by both humans and wolves, the wolves would move on, and the humans would have to find something else to eat.

On the coasts, everything depended on finding large, fatty animals under the ice or out on the open water, successfully killing them, and successfully collecting the kill, which could easily slip away underwater.

For both groups, a year of simple bad luck could be enough to send a community group into starvation.  Stories are told of elders choosing to die, saving food for the rest of the community, instead of being a part of a longer starvation, dooming everyone along with them.  In one story, a great hunter's mother asks him to kill her by hanging, she not wanting to starve with the family or alone in the wilderness.  Their leader tells the hunter that he should do it, and that he would need to be more brave to do it than when he hunted any wild animal.  I'm pretty sure the story, told by Sidney Huntington in his book Shadows on the Koyukuk, brought tears to my eyes when I read it.

So yes, Alaska does host many large and charismatic creatures, and supported a rather wide range of human cultures for thousands of years.  But life for both humans and animals here has been harsh, existing on a knife edge.  Today, both coastal and interior natives no longer have to fear starvation if they can't find enough game in the wild, but of course most natives no longer try to depend on the wilderness for survival.  Subsistence hunting and trapping are still practiced by both natives and other rural residents, but modern technology has made these practices less risky and more productive, and allowed for alternative sources of food in times of need via shipping by plane.  And many natives are foregoing the practices of their parents and grandparents altogether, moving out of their rural communities and finding work in larger towns and cities.

The animals, meanwhile, have not enjoyed the benefits of human-made technology, and so are still forced to deal with the environment using the tools they were born with, taking the bad years with the good as best they can.  The Arctic is not forgiving.  It is not a simple matter to live here with nothing but the fur or feathers on your back.  It requires moving constantly, finding whatever food you can wherever you can.  Because the wilderness here is staggeringly vast, it can be done, and many animals manage it, year after year.  But it isn't easy, and it couldn't be done at all without millions and millions of acres to wander.

So I think we can accept that some days, we just aren't going to see any animals.

Thanks for reading.


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