Why the North Slope?

I realized in 2005 that pathology was my calling while working as a necropsy technician doing Chronic Wasting Disease necropsies on hunter submitted deer, elk and moose.  I distinctly remember assisting Dr. Laurie Baeten (Former Division of Wildlife Veterinarian and current Microbiology Resident) with a red fox necropsy.  That would be the necropsy that changed my life forever!  I continued working for the Colorado Division of Wildlife for three hunting seasons, at the same time setting my sites on the Last Frontier.  Everything fell into place for me-the summer of 2007 I worked for Alaska’s only board certified veterinary pathologist, Dr. Kathy Burek Huntington and also worked for Dr. Kimberlee Beckmen, veterinarian for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. 

That same summer I went to Barrow on a whim-the experience confirmed that I wanted to work with the people of the North Slope.  I knew that there were a lot of people from “the outside” who  did not appreciate or understand the need to preserve subsistence hunting practices.  I saw many parallels between subsistence hunting and my family farm in Eastern South Dakota that has sustained 4 generations of my family.   The Inupiat Eskimoes maintain very close spiritual and cultural ties to the environment and the wildlife that has fed and clothed them for thousands of years-sadly this is not the case for the average American in the Lower 48.   Modern farming practices and food manufacturing has removed the average consumer from the food chain.  Even more upsetting are animal welfare and political interest groups that seek to limit subsistence activities.  The North Slope is rich in oil and natural gas reserves, and many Americans, even Alaskans in Anchorage and Fairbanks want to pursue exploration and drilling activities at all costs.  There is also no doubt that the people and wildlife of the North Slope are experiencing firsthand the effects of global warming-whether increased temperatures, rapid melting of ice and the establishment of vegetation not native to the Arctic tundra is the result of man’s activities or a natural phenomenon I will leave to the experts.  What I do know is that the people of the North Slope are at greatest risk for suffering the most from all of these challenges and stand to lose the most by policies made by people who live thousands of miles away.  As an aspiring veterinary pathologist, I feel it is my duty to provide sound baseline data concerning the health of the North Slope wildlife populations so that the good people of the North Slope can use this information to help them manage their land and wildlife populations.

The hunters and their families have been most supportive of me and extremely generous to me in letting me conduct post-mortem examinations on their animals and collect tissues for my research, borough research, and research conducted by outside institutions.  The collection of tissues requires strict adherence to rules set forth in marine mammal permits issued to the department!  The opportunity to examine and collect tissues from these animals is a rare and unprecedented opportunity for me to study tissues of the highest quality.  It is more often the case with marine mammals, that researchers are called out to sample carcasses lying on the beach where significant autolysis and postmortem change impair histopathologic intrepretation.   The close relationship that scientists at the North Slope Borough Wildlife Department have worked to establish and maintain with the subsistence hunters is allowing me to develop a greater understanding of the complex anatomical adaptations that permit marine mammals to thrive in the marine environment.  Furthermore, I am developing an appreciation for morphological features at the microscopic level that are normal.

Pictured above are sisters Mae and Flossie-these two have been so good to me.  It was with their families that I ate my first meal of bearded seal.  I absolutely loved it!  Mae also made me my first ulu-the traditional cutting utensil that is shown above.  The women use ulus to assist them with butchering.  Am I worried about the safety of what I am eating with respect to contaminants and toxins-absolutely not!  So far, the North Slope has not seen contaminant levels like those seen in marine mammals from the Eastern Canadian Arctic and West Greenland.

Bowhead whale blubber (maktaaq) is extremely high in PUFA’s. providing 189% of the recommended daily allowance, providing significant protection to the cardiovascular system.

Still, monitoring the health of North Slope marine mammals is very important-this baseline information will allow scientists to recognize the effects of diminishing sea ice, increased water temperatures, ship traffic, and industrial development on the health of subsistence resources.

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