Assisted Migration

“As the caribou cluster together, we can see the determination in their eyes. These next few days will be the herd’s greatest test.” Gillian intoned, eyes heavy with meaning, as she looked into the camera.

“And, cut! I think we got it that time!” Hank said.

Rachel and Niillas looked at each other, and mimicked Gillian’s tone, “… their greatest test…” then they laughed, stood up, and stretched.

“I know I’m laying it on thick, but the viewers are going to want drama, right?” said Gillian. “And if we don’t add our own drama, this will be .. pretty boring.”

Gillian was, of course, right. As the Porcupine herd was leaving the Gwichʼin Environmental Management Area, and headed into the Prudhoe Coastal Refuge, things were – mostly – very safe. The permafrost bogs could be dangerous given how soft and unpredictable the tundra was. But the caribou were adaptable.

“Think we can make Prudhoe Bay by Sunday?” asked Hank, hopeful at the thought of a warm bed.

“Maybe” said Niillas. ,”The drone monitors show good forage all the way to the coast.” He showed the drone display to the crew, and a 3D map with red veins crisscrossed through a miniature map of the region, with large areas of green.

Rachel pointed to a section of red line split in half, “What happened there? Is that drill road out?” The old oil roads, now serving as refugia for some plants and animals from the surging seas, were also strange, elevated corridors through the swamp. When big chunks of subsurface permafrost melted, the roads would sometimes collapse too, in big gaping sections.

“Not sure,” said Niillas. “We could try steering the herd around the gap, are you concerned?” asked Niillas

“Maybe, I just don’t think we want an ambush.” said Rachel.

“We can’t re-route,” said Gillian. “Our funding depends on documenting the full migration. Driving them away from the gap means we could fall behind in the jostle, and we can’t lose them now.”

“Agreed. It’s just a short bit.” said Rachel.

The Porcupine migration crew was in their fourth season together. Niillas, still on an Arctic conservation exchange, was wrapping up his PhD at the University of Helsinki. Gillian and Hank were both ecologists from the Athabascan Research Institute, and Rachel was the government biologist – mandated under the Murkowski Assisted Migration Act.

The MAMA crew was responsible for monitoring the migration of the Porcupine herd, as part of the Global Conservation Pact. This was, probably, their last year together, as Niillas would be returning to Finland, and Rachel would likely rotate to a different crew.

The crew prepared to make their way down the hilltop they were perched on since the herd was giving indications they would start moving soon. Despite the swampy tundra, the caribou could still move fast, so each MAMA crew member had their own Strider. A lightweight, maneuverable, land walker. Each rider, perched on a small chair, sat strapped in their strider. It took getting used to, but Striders could easily keep up with the caribou, and in a pinch could even sprint away from a predator. What they gained in speed, though, they gave up in protection. A nickname for the Striders was also fast food.

“My left leg is a little sticky, so probably no sprinting for me today,” said Gillian. “Just a heads-up.” No joking at this. The crew knew that everyone’s suit needed to be as functional as possible to keep moving.

“We’ll get it checked when we get to town,” assured Hank. The crew finished checking each others’ Striders, and just in time, since the herd had begun their daily trot.

The Porcupine caribou herd still completed the largest land migration of any animal, anywhere on Earth, but now, it was an assisted migration. Contrary to global expectations early in the 21st century, the world was well on its way toward tackling the myriad collective action problems required to address climate change. By 2050, the world had mostly reached net-zero carbon emissions, and technologies were being rolled out to go negative within the decade. But centuries worth of carbon had already been emitted to fuel industrial growth, and there it would remain till it could be sucked out of the atmosphere. A consequence of all of this was that global ecosystems around the world, particularly those with migratory ecologies, were in dire straits. Entire ecosystems needed assistance to keep pace with changing conditions of temperature, rainfall, and seasonal cycles. The Global Conservation Pact, a descendent of earlier agreements like the Convention on Biological Diversity, was a binding agreement by all signatory countries to assist in the migration of entire ecosystems, along the best available pathways through continents.

“Race you to the front of the herd!” yelled Rachel, and Niillas was hot on her Strider’s heels. They didn’t actually race, since that would terrify the herd into a dangerous stampede, but they did move swiftly along the sides. Not all species had adapted to the Striders well. In Sweden and Finland, the Sámi used different tech to keep up with the big herds, mostly solarmobiles. But here, the Porcupine herd tolerated the Striders which were cheaper, lighter — and more fun.

“Radio comms up, confirm.” said Gillian

“Confirmed,” said Hank.

“Confirmed” huffed Niillas, still striding to the front of the herd.


“Rachel — please confirm.” said Gillian.

Static sound, then “—esss”.

“Niillas, what’s going on, can’t you see Rachel?” asked Hank, concern in his voice.

“Drones show her as standing next to that open patch of the drill road. Her Strider is motionless, but it’s functional, and her comms are on.”

Static, then… “lvess…”

Gillian got it first, and swore. “Wolf sighting. Niillas, confirm sighting.”

The silent drone swarm above the herd, changed direction like an uncanny flock of birds, and sure enough, a pack of 10 Arctic wolves were crouched in the gap. Rachel was motionless in her Strider, only 50 feet away from the gap, but safe, around a corner from the wolves.

“Joo. Kymmenen susia… ah, sorry. Yes. 10 wolves.” said Niillas, then “Ghost baby?”

Hank laughed, “Not again!”

“Yes. Do it,” said Gillian.

Niillas sent five of the drones well over the gap in the road, and fanned them out 200 yards behind the wolves. Then they started all crying, in synchrony, like a human baby. It was creepy, but effective. Almost all at once the wolves spun around toward the new sound behind them, the three closest to the drones began snarling. Continuing their baby cry, the drones began clumping together as they coaxed the wolves closer, then the drones would back off further away, drawing the attention of the wolves further from the herd.

“Thank God for ghost baby.” whispered Rachel.

A few of the wolves lingered looking at the herd, and then spun following the pack, running away, as the drones drew them further from the gap.

“OK everyone. Double time to the northeast corner of the herd. Then, Niillas, bring the ghost baby back to the herd. We don’t want the pack to go hungry today, they need food as much as the bou.”

The MAMA crew could hear Niillas muttering. Old habits die hard, and he had always begrudged the wolves on this migration.

“Niillas — please confirm.” said Gillian.

“Confirmed. Good to go.” said Niillas.

The crew began moving calmly, and quickly, to the corner of the herd, Gillian’s Strider lagging a bit behind with the gummed up leg.

“Release the ghost baby” said Gillian.

No one laughed, despite the absurdity. Niillas sent the crying ghost baby back toward the gap in the road, and then turned off the sound. The wolves were back on the hunt, if only a bit confused.

The herd reacted predictably to the wolves, scattering a bit and running faster toward their goal. Niillas’ drones caught footage from multiple perspectives showing the pack picking off a slower, older member of the herd. As the wolves began feeding, the herd stopped their panicked run, and slowed to a trot. The Striders kept pace a good distance away.

“Thanks,” said Rachel, as she strode up next to Gillian. “You said you wanted drama today, right?”

Gillian laughed, “I’m just happy you’re safe. Let’s keep our distance a bit so we don’t spook the herd again.”

They all agreed, and their Striders kept up a steady, satisfying splosh as they made their way toward the flooded coast of Prudhoe Bay.