by pregnant cows drawn by some ancient inner urge, herds of many
thousand animals migrate hundreds of miles through deep snow to
ancestral calving grounds on the tundra. Many of the caribou perish in
spring blizzards and icy river crossings, and the survivors are often
lean and scruffy-looking, but the tundra offers a refuge from wolves
and plentiful forage during the vulnerable calving period.
Alaskan adventurer Keith Nyitray, who mushed, hiked and canoed 1,500
miles across the Brooks Range with his wolf-dog "Smoke" in 1989,
recalls his encounter with one of these migrations:
"I felt like a human rock surrounded by a torrent of life the day a
caribou herd crossed my path, bound for grazing grounds. The graceful
animals showed little fear. I stood still and ordered Smoke to do the
same. They rumbled by -- 200, 400, then thousands moving down a tundra
valley in waves, wanderers like me."
The caribou Nyitray met on his trek were part of the Porcupine Caribou
Herd, a massive congregation of about 150,000 animals that migrates
across the 19-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in far
northeast Alaska. During the weeks he spent crossing the refuge Nyitray
also counted 11 grizzlies, 75 wolves, hundreds of Dall sheep, dozens of
moose, eagles, foxes, lynx and otters. And had he ventured out on the
coastal plain bordering the Beaufort Sea he likely would have
encountered polar bear, muskox, Arctic hares, lemmings, bumblebees,
great flocks of snow geese, tundra swans and up to 178 other migrating
species of birds from four continents.
Just as the Great Plains once supported teeming herds of buffalo and
the free-flowing Columbia River held thick swarms of 50-pound salmon,
the Arctic Refuge preserves the last of North America's great surface
migrations and dozens of associated plant and animal species. Nicknamed
"America's Serengeti," it is the largest and probably the most complete
wilderness ecosystem in the U.S. The entire state of South Carolina
could be squeezed within its borders.
"The Arctic, along with a number of other National Wildlife Refuges in
Alaska, set aside very large areas of undisturbed habitat. They serve
to protect naturally functioning ecosystems," notes Jim Kurth, manager
of the Arctic Refuge. "In the Lower 48 states, refuges are generally
smaller and protect components of larger ecosystems."
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