The End of the Earth: Threats to the Yamal Region's Cultural and Biological Diversity

by Bruce Forbes

Northwest Siberia is undergoing large-scale industrial development at a rapid pace. The Yamal-Nenets Autonomous District, although home to one of the largest untapped sources of natural gas in the world, has only recently been introduced to the outside world via major coverage in the popular and business/finance media (Specter 1994a, b; Fuhrman 1995; York 1997; Deutsche Morgan Grenfell 1998; Montaigne 1998). Russia has been designated a ''Cooperation Partner'' country within NATO, and Western oil companies and the World Bank have pledged billions of dollars to develop the resources of the Yamal Region (Greenhouse 1993; Specter 1994b; Anonymous 1997). The Yamal gas development is easily as controversial (albeit much less known) as its closest analog, the battle over petroleum exploration in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. A series of pipelines are planned that would eventually dissect the east central Yamal Peninsula (see map). An alternative plan is to ship the gas out by tanker/icebreaker convoys via the Northern Sea Route (Golovnev et al. 1998). The regional state-controlled petroleum company Nadym Gazprom has been actively pursuing this $40-billion project since the 1960s (Golovnev and Osherenko 1999) - the last of the Soviet-style mega projects (Deutsch Morgan Grenfell 1998). In summer 1996 Gazprom and its former American partner Amoco (since merged with BP) called a 5-10+ year moratorium on further construction on the Yamal development, one of several major projects underway here and in the adjoining East European Arctic. In addition to construction of an as-yet-unfinished year-round road/railway corridor to facilitate movement of materials and people (see map), three decades of gas/oil exploration have passed with few attempts at mitigation of impacts.

This region is the homeland of the largest remaining nomadic pastoralist group in the Arctic, the Yamal Nenets. The basis for their indigenous economy is the seasonal exploitation of extensive tundra ''pastures'' by their reindeer. However, natural gas exploration has resulted in the direct withdrawal of large areas for infrastructure development, and associated disturbances have led to cumulative impacts on thousands of additional hectares of land. The land withdrawals have pushed an increasing number of reindeer onto progressively smaller parcels of pasture, causing excessive grazing and trampling of lichens, bryophytes, and shrubs and, in many areas, erosion of sandy soils via deflation (Khitun 1997; Vilchek 1997). Furthermore, cumulative negative effects of a combination railway-road corridor are already manifesting themselves in southern Yamal (Forbes 1995, 1997; Forbes and Jefferies 1999). The moratorium on further development, if it holds, may provide opportunities for more detailed baseline scientific research and to marshal political support for the Nenets should either the pipeline or sea route project proceed as planned.

Traditional Economy and Ecology in a Modern Context

In the Nenets' own language, ''Yamal'' means roughly ''the end of the earth'' or ''land's end.'' The Nenets have survived for centuries (Golovnev & Osherenko 1999) through perseverance and pride and, during this century, in the face of demands imposed by the communist regime. Even while forced to attend Russian schools, the Nenets have retained their language and culture and have made consistent efforts to be good stewards of the land and its wildlife despite decades of active mismanagement under the collective system.

The so-called brigade system is an artifact of the Stalin era, when everything was ''collectivized.'' The Soviets attempted to break the Nenets' system of reindeer management, with its clan-based ownership, by enforcing the collective ethic and state ownership. The Nenets were expected to provide reindeer meat to the Russian ''market.'' When the communist regime collapsed in 1991, the subsidies for meat distribution disappeared and overnight the artificial market was exposed. About half the animals have since returned to private ownership, but many herds are still operated as collectives with Russian (non-native) managers. Nenets must now barter directly, with either fish or ''ponti'' - the velvet covering the reindeers' antlers that is coveted as an aphrodisiac in Southeast Asia - for goods like tea, bread, sugar, jam and other items available at the few regional trading posts. An export market has quickly developed and can be highly lucrative for greedy Soviet-era regional managers who maintain control over the collection (by helicopter) and distribution of the ''ponts.''

From an ecosystem perspective, the most damaging aspect of the enforced collectivization has been the establishment of rigidly bounded (but not fenced) brigade routes and the utilization of virtually every square kilometer of available tundra for reindeer grazing. There are no reserve or ''fallow'' pastures. For many decades, each brigade's annual migration of several hundred kilometers has taken place along the same path. This has robbed the Nenets of their traditional ability to alter the routes accounting for changes in pasture conditions and climate, thus exacerbating the grazing impacts. Unfortunately, the regional authorities are resistant to dismantling the ecologically and culturally destructive brigade system.

At present, the total number of semi-domestic reindeer in public (collective) and private ownership in the entire okrug is about 460,000, including 180,000 on the Yamal Peninsula. Massive outright land withdrawals by Gazprom and exploration and development activities - particularly at the Bovanenkovo Gas Field where 127,000 ha (1270 km2) of tundra comprising reindeer pasture land had been lost by 1990 (Martens et al. 1996) - have pushed a relatively consistent number of animals onto increasingly smaller areas of tundra. It is now estimated that the number of semi-domestic reindeer on Yamal is already 1.5 to 2 times greater than the optimum for the region (Vilchek & Bykova 1992; Martens et al. 1996). Overgrazing and industrial development combine to create a scale of actual and potential surface disturbance not found anywhere else in the tundra biome.

Reindeer biology

As a species, Rangifer tarandus has a circumpolar distribution. North American caribou are mostly wild, whereas the Eurasian reindeer comprise an abundance of both semi-domestic and wild types. Various subspecies occur in the eastern and western hemispheres (Syroechkovskii 1995; Pruitt 1996). Reindeer have been introduced in many places around the globe, occasionally on islands, but nearly always with disastrous consequences for the target ecosystems that either evolved without them (see Leader-Williams 1988 for a fine review) or have not been exposed to any grazing for several generations (e.g., Nishi 1993).

According to Podkoritov (1995) and Haakanson (1996, pers. comm.), supplemental winter feeding does not occur on Yamal as it does in Finland, where it helps to maintain herds at artificially high (and damaging) levels. However, this may not prevent ecosystem dysfunction. As Manseau et al. (1996) have discovered in northern Quebec, Rangifer spp. can depress the plant productivity of their summer range even in the presence of wolf populations not subject to human control. Caribou and reindeer can have a significant effect directly on plant biomass and indirectly on the distribution of the food source at the landscape level. In winter they feed mostly on carbohydrate-rich lichens, as well as senescent leaves, shoots, and twigs of vascular plants, but switch to protein-rich grasses, shrubs (dwarf willow and birch), leguminous herbs, and sedges in late spring and summer. They are also extremely fond of mushrooms. Excessive grazing over many years tends to favor graminoids and ruderal (weedy) mosses and lichens at the expense of and certain preferred lichens and dwarf shrubs and is an ecologically important limiting factor in the regeneration of many vascular plant species, thus altering the course of vegetation change on areas recovering from disturbance.

The regional scale of habitat destruction in northwest Siberia, including the Yamal Peninsula, was recently summarized by Vilchek & Bykova (1992; see also Vilchek 1997). They observed that plant cover is already completely destroyed on over 450 km2 within gas and oil fields and on 1800 km2 along the main pipelines. They estimate the total area of destroyed vegetation to be about 2500 km2. If the overland pipeline is built, Vilchek & Bykova (1992) assert that the area of explored gas and oil fields will increase to 16,200 km2 and the portion with completely destroyed vegetation will increase to 5500 km2. If the gas is shipped out by tanker, only short pipelines will be built to the coast near Bovanenkovo (see map). However, this will still require completion of the road/railway and the combined result will be considerable habitat destruction. In fact, a great deal of damage has already been sustained by the ecosystems of Yamal since the advent of extensive exploration and development (Forbes 1995, 1997; Khitun 1997; Vilchek 1997), including health and demographic problems among the indigenous population (Pika and Bogoyavlensky 1995). The aforementioned figures are likely to be low estimates because they do not include the further degradation that is expected to occur due to overgrazing by reindeer or cumulative impacts such as altered hydrology and blowing sand/dust from roads and quarries (e.g., Forbes 1995). The three most widespread types of disturbance are off-road vehicle traffic, exploratory drilling, and sand excavation (Vilchek 1997; Khitun 1997). Assisted revegetation programs designed to control erosion on affected areas have met with limited success due to their immense expanse and the prevalence of nutrient poor, well-drained, and highly erodable sands, in conjunction with the cold, dry climate (Forbes & Jefferies 1999).

Viable wildlife populations

Substantial populations of terrestrial wildlife inhabit this region, but some fur-bearing species are subject to hunting and trapping. Pelt output - a very rough measure of population dynamics and harvest statistics - is available from 1962 to 1988 (Vilchek 1992) for wild (not farmed) arctic fox, fox, ermine, wolf, squirrel, otter, wolverine, sable, muskrat, and hare. Although the dangers of using such data to estimate actual populations are well-known, the pelt output trends for some mammals reveal steep declines. Brown bear and moose are both very rare on the tundra. Polar bear and walrus, both protected, may come ashore in places in late summer (Chernov 1997). Three types of ptarmigan or grouse (Lagopus spp.) occur, along with wild ducks and geese, and these are hunted for sport and game by non-Native and Native populations, respectively. Raptors include a variety of owls, eagles, hawks, all of which are common in the tundra zone except the peregrine falcon (Chernov 1997).

Wolves (Canis lupus albus) are distributed everywhere, but population densities are somewhat higher on the so-called southern tundra (central Yamal) compared to the northern tundra (northernmost Yamal) and the forest-tundra. Hunting from helicopters peaked after World War II (413 animals taken 1948-58), but then eased up and populations had recovered by the 1970s. The total population for the Yamal-Nenets Region was recently estimated to be about 500 wolves, with densities ranging from about 0.7 individuals per 1000 km2 in the forest-tundra to 1.5/1000 km2 in the tundra (Korytin et al. 1995). Most wolves depend on reindeer for their sustenance and therefore follow the latter's annual migration to a great extent. But for many in the far north and along the coast, ptarmigan are also important in their diet.

Although wolverines also range throughout Yamal Peninsula, population densities are much lower than wolves, as is the case elsewhere in the circumpolar North. They are slightly more numerous in the southern tundra and forest-tundra. The density for the region is estimated to be 0.05 individuals per 1000 km2 (Korytin et al. 1995). They sometimes prey on reindeer, taking only weakened/sick adults or calves, but Nenets do not consider them a threat to the herds. It is more common for them to feed on carcasses left by wolves, though they also prey on smaller mammals and birds and consume hoards of berries in season. When they are hunted, it is usually by non-Nenets seeking their extremely valuable pelts. Wolverine pelt outputs vary greatly - from a high of 148 in 1969 to a low of seven as recently as 1983 - with no clear pattern (Vilchek 1992). The arctic fox is considered to be particularly at risk. The number of arctic fox pelts produced between 1962-64 ranged from 23,324 to 32,406; in 1988, the number was 4334 (Vilchek 1992). In the early phases of intensive gas field development, 13% of fox dens were substantially or totally destroyed during the construction of roads, facilities, and quarries, in addition to uncontrolled off-road traffic by tracked vehicles. Since then the pace of development has increased substantially, as has poaching by crew workers, and there is concern for the long-term viability of the central Yamal population (Dobrinskii & Sosin 1995).

Although the full suite of indigenous wild animals has survived in the context of reindeer herding for several centuries - despite increasingly intense hunting, trapping, fishing, and industrial pressures from non-Nenets in the last several decades - it is likely that most mammal populations are less robust as a result of habitat loss and reindeer grazing. Industrial development threatens to degrade more habitat and negatively affect wildlife.

The Future of Yamal's Nature and Culture

Although this ecosystem is extensively manipulated by humans and seemingly overrun by semi-domesticated animals, the region retains viable populations of wolves, wolverines, eagles and other wildlife indicative of wildlands (many of which survive on the ample semi-domestic fodder). Wilderness devoid of humans is largely non-existent outside of Antarctica, and the concept is alien to indigenous northern cultures (Klein 1994). Humans have long been - and remain - a major part of the most productive arctic landscapes, and are thus integral components affecting ecosystem structure and function. Conservationists can benefit from acquainting themselves with those places where humans live in relative harmony with the natural world. The Yamal Nenets certainly qualify on this score, and, as good stewards of their lands, they deserve whatever support the outside world can muster in the face of massive industrial development. According to Gazprom's plans, the Yamal Project is to be developed in stages. The ''last and most expensive'' (i.e., damaging) stage, which they estimate at $18 billion, is not scheduled to begin until around 2005, and the actual petroleum reserves are not ''needed'' until beyond 2010, possibly later (Deutsche Morgan Grenfell 1998). This potentially buys some time, but not much. If BP-Amoco or some other Western company returns, pressure can be brought to bear where it counts most, in the media and the marketplace - an unfortunate scenario, but one that could bring necessary attention to this often overlooked, but ecologically and culturally rich, arctic region.

Bruce Forbes is Senior Scientist in Environmental Science and Policy at the Arctic Centre, University of Lapland ( Previous research on ecosystem disturbance and recovery has taken him to Alaska and the Canadian High Arctic. In addition to ongoing work on the Yamal, he is currently leading investigations on recreation impacts and restoration ecology in northernmost Fennoscandia, and advising a project on bison reintroduction in northern Sakha Republic (eastern Siberia). He wishes to thank Bill Howland for first introducing him to northern science.

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