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How one woman used Porcupine Caribou to explain climate change in the West

PORCUPINE_CARIBOU_SARA_DANT_CREDIT_Dan_Flores.JPG
Dan Flores
"There are thousands and thousands of caribou moving in elegant harmony and balance with the swift-moving seasons here in the far north," says Dr. Sara Dant.

In 2019, Dr. Sara Dant took a two-week float trip on the Hulahula River north of the Arctic Circle.

Here she realized what wild America once looked like and as thousands of "Porcupine Caribou" flowed around her tent she suddenly knew how to write about climate change in the West.

She will be speaking about her trip and her book, "Losing Eden: An Environmental History of the American West", at the City of Boise's Fettuccine Forum on Thursday night.

Read the full transcript below:

Gemma Gaudette: More Idaho Matters right now. I'm Gemma Gaudette. In 2019, Dr. Sara Dant took a two-week float trip on the Hulahula River north of the Arctic Circle. And as she stood staring across a huge landscape that has never been touched by cars or cows or buildings, she realized what Wild America once look like and as thousands of porcupine caribou flowed like a river around her tent, she suddenly knew how to write about climate change in the West. Dr. Dant is the Brady presidential distinguished professor and chair of history at Weber State University. She'll be speaking about her trip to the Arctic and about her book, Losing Eden: An Environmental History of the American West at the City of Boise's Fettuccine Forum this Thursday evening. And she's joining us live now. Welcome to the program.

Dr. Sara Dant: Thank you so much for having me. I'm looking forward to this.

Gemma Gaudette: So, Dr. Dant, where was this trip that you took back in 2019?

Dr. Sara Dant: So we were on a trip in the Arctic, so above the Arctic Circle, right over the solstice, which was equally incredible. And it's kind of on the northern tip of Alaska. And the Brooks Range is one of the northern mountain ranges in Alaska. The Hulahula River, which is the river we were on, flows north out of the Brooks Range, out across the coastal plain to the Beaufort Sea, literally the last edge of North America before you get to the pole. So that's where we were.

Gemma Gaudette: Okay. Can we stop for a minute? Because I am so curious to know how the Hulahula river got its name.

Dr. Sara Dant: Well, indeed. I mean, that's that's a great story when you're up in Alaska and you're talking about the Hulahula. But.

Gemma Gaudette: Yeah.

Dr. Sara Dant: It's not a surprise, actually. It was Hawaiian whalers who had followed whale hunting over to the Beaufort Sea, which is where a lot of whales go to fatten up. And they put on a lot of their blubber there. And so these whalers from Hawaii were there. They saw the river. They explored it a little bit and they named it the Hulahula.

Gemma Gaudette: So describe the landscape on this trip, because you were looking at thousands of acres where, I mean, literally there's been no evidence of human beings.

Dr. Sara Dant: It was it was a great privilege of my life, I think, to to have this experience. And so we we started actually the headwaters are pretty close of the Hulahula are pretty close up in the Brooks Range. So we actually start in the foothills of the Brooks Range. And then it was a 12-day float trip on the river. And about the halfway point or so we flushed out of the mountains and out onto this vast coastal plain where you can see for scores of miles in every direction, basically until you you can't see any farther because of mist or the curvature of the earth. And and so, yeah, it was this astonishing sort of juxtaposition of jagged, gorgeous peaks and then this coastal plain that just spread out until you felt like almost literally at the end of the earth was to the north.

Gemma Gaudette: So you've called the porcupine caribou the life force in that area. What was it like when they started flowing around your tent?

Dr. Sara Dant: You know, the the porcupine caribou migration, it's a 1500 mile annual circuit that they make every year. And they come out of the mountains and they flow out onto the coastal plain because they need to drop their calves. And the reason they do that is because they need to get away from the wolves that are in the mountains that that also have young to feed. And so it's a it's this very ancient ritual that all of this ecosystem has developed over time, so that everyone gets to do what's necessary to advance their species in the time that's allotted to them. And so, I mean, literally, there's there's tens of thousands of them flowing out of the mountains, along the river corridors. They their ankles make this interesting clicking sound as they go past. So, I mean, that was one of the ways I knew in the middle of the, I'm going to use the word night, but there's no such thing at the solstice above the Arctic Circle. But at some point when I was trying to sleep because it was quote-unquote night, I could hear this this clicking and chuffing and huffing and unzip the door of the tent. And there they were, just moving past grazing, walking. It was unbelievable.

Gemma Gaudette: Let me reintroduce you for folks who are just joining us. We're talking with Dr. Sarah Dant. She is chair of history at Weber State University. She'll be talking about climate change in the West this coming Thursday at Boise's Fettuccine Forum. So how did you go from watching these porcupine caribou migrate to writing a chapter on climate change in your book, which is called Losing Eden: An Environmental History of the American West?

Dr. Sara Dant: For me, it was a chance to think about the West that there once was this this vast landscape teeming with with life and with possibility. And in some ways, the last frontier of Alaska is what primal America must have once been. And so as I was watching this caribou migration, these ancient patterns, I was also really keenly aware that all of this is in flux because of climate change. And we had the privilege before we started the trip. We flew into Arctic Village, which has an entire population of 152 people. And one of the people one of the one of the 152 is this incredible woman named Sarah James. She is a Gwich'in tribal elder, and she has long been an advocate for the caribou and her people who are called, the Gwich'in's are what that means is basically caribou people. And she was talking about the kinds of climate change and development threats that were facing her people, their land and the caribou. And I couldn't help but see the strong parallels between many of the challenges she was describing here in what seemed to be so far remote north, where we're not that dissimilar really from what we're facing in the west today. So it was kind of this, aha, here's how I here's here's how I can get at this idea in the West.

Gemma Gaudette: So your book also covers you cover numerous topics, including the environmental legacy of Idaho Senator Frank Church. Can you talk just a little bit about that chapter and why it was important to put that in the book?

Dr. Sara Dant: To me, Frank Church is one of those remarkable individuals who manages to make a difference. And any time I can find an example for class or for talks or even for my own personal experience of of how one person really does matter and how one person really can make a difference. I like to feature that if I can. I think of Rachel Carson, for example, or Aldo Leopold and Frank Churches is right in there. And the thing that's striking to me is that a lot of people don't know this about Frank Church. His environmental legacy is really powerful. And yet to me, what's as powerful about Church's legacy is not just what he got accomplished: Wilderness Act, Wild and Scenic Rivers, Land and Water Conservation Fund and on and on, but also the way in which he went about doing it. Church was all about consensus. Let's find the middle 80% and let's work together cooperatively to find the common ground that can lead us all forward. And I just feel like that's an incredibly powerful model.

Gemma Gaudette: Before I let you go, one of the things that you'll be talking about at Boise's Fettuccini Forum is how to balance the environment and the economy. I mean, can we really do that?

Dr. Sara Dant: I absolutely think so. And this idea of sustainability is exactly that. It's not that we aren't going to continue to use resources. We are. But we have to realize that we need to do so responsibly and that there are ways that our species can coexist with all of the other species on the planet in a way that is beneficial for all. I really do think that a healthy economy is a healthy environment, and a healthy environment brings a healthy economy.

Gemma Gaudette: Well, I want to thank you so much for the really interesting conversation. We've been talking with Dr. Sara Dant. She is the Brady presidential distinguished professor and she is chair of history at Weber State University. She will be speaking about climate change and her trip to the Arctic at the City of Boise's Free Fettuccini forum this Thursday night. Thank you so much for the conversation.

Dr. Sara Dant: Thank you. It's my pleasure.

Gemma Gaudette: Absolutely. Up next, we find out why so many people are quitting their jobs.

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As Senior Producer of our live daily talk show Idaho Matters, I’m able to indulge my love of storytelling and share all kinds of information (I was probably a Town Crier in a past life!). My career has allowed me to learn something new everyday and to share that knowledge with all my friends on the radio.