ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The only Alaska caribou herd to share its range with oil facilities is growing by leaps and bounds.
A state survey shows that the central Arctic caribou herd is at its largest point since scientists began tracking it 23 years ago. The herd has swelled to 27,000, up 35 percent from the last survey done in 1997.
''We've seen a steady increase, but there is no cause to put our hands on,'' said Pat Valkenberg, a biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Fairbanks.
Valkenberg said the oil facilities have displaced female caribou and calves south, several miles from the oil fields, but there is ample range on the North Slope.
''I don't think (the data) tell us anything about caribou and oil development,'' he said.
The Kuparuk and Prudhoe Bay oil fields, the two largest fields in North America, occupy much of the tundra where female caribou calve.
The debate over whether to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge's coastal plain to oil development has often focused on the welfare of the caribou herds on the North Slope. While the herd appears to be thriving around the Prudhoe field, environmentalists fear that oil development in ANWR would hurt the larger caribou herd there.
Geologists believe there are billions of barrels of oil in ANWR, but it is closed to drilling. The incoming Bush administration favors congressional opening of ANWR's coastal plain.
Valkenberg said milder winters than normal on the North Slope may have contributed to calf survival. He also said a rapid increase in Arctic caribou populations is common.
Non-pregnant females and males appear indifferent to oil facilities. During summer migration onto the coastal plain of the central North Slope, thousands of caribou often clog the gravel roads and crowd around buildings.
''The calves and cows don't like traffic,'' said Mike Joyce, a former Arco Alaska Inc. environmental scientist who is now a consultant to Phillips Alaska Inc. ''But we don't see oil development having any effect on the population level.''
Stan Senner, a biologist and executive director of the Alaska Audubon Society, said that displacement of some females in the central Arctic herd during calving should raise concerns for oil development in the ANWR, east of Prudhoe Bay.
The Porcupine herd in ANWR is larger, about 130,000, and the coastal plain where the caribou calve is smaller.
''This is a very legitimate concern,'' Senner said.
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