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Caribou

Karsten Heuer feels he is on a first-name basis with American President George W. Bush. Not surprising, given what he and "George" have been through.

In 2003, Heuer, a wildlife biologist based in Canmore, Alta., followed the 123,000-head Porcupine caribou herd on its annual migration from its wintering grounds in northern Yukon to its spring calving grounds in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Heuer completed the arduous 1,500-kilometre trek with two companions: his wife, filmmaker Leanne Allison, and a 25-centimetre-tall George W. Bush doll.

For five months, Heuer and Allison tracked the herd on foot and skis over treacherous mountain passes, swimming through icy rivers and braving swarms of mosquitoes and encounters with wolves and grizzly bears. It was all in an effort to prove a point: ANWR is too precious to exploit for oil and gas resources, as the United States is poised to do.

In October, Heuer will be featured in The Royal Canadian Geographical Society’s fall lecture series in British Columbia. He will recount his experiences and explain the plight of the caribou through stories, slides and clips from the internationally acclaimed Being Caribou, the film about their journey.

The Porcupine caribou are among the last North American mammals to be largely unaffected by human activity. For thousands of years, they have migrated to the same calving grounds, where the coastal plains offer abundant food and protection from predators. Heuer believes the grounds will be irrevocably disturbed if oil exploration in the area goes through.

"A good measure of the importance of the Alaskan calving grounds to the caribou is in the effort they go through every year to get there and back," he says. "We went through everything they went through to bring that story alive. And we took George Bush into the landscape so he could see what his policies are affecting."

Heuer, Allison and "George" share the screen in Being Caribou, which was released by the National Film Board last year. Beginning in Old Crow, Yukon, where caribou meat is a mainstay in the diet of the Gwich’in people, the film documents the ungulate’s perpetual struggle for survival. It ends in Washington, D.C., where the United States Congress is expected to continue debate this fall on legislation that would allow for oil and gas exploration in ANWR.

"It was important for us to show the geographical and ideological difference between this place up in the Arctic with this caribou herd," says Heuer, "and the power centre thousands of miles way — a world away, really — that’s making all the decisions about its future."

— Sarah Mayes

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