By Dr. Steve Zack
If a place on earth motivates a Bar-tailed Godwit to fly more than 9,000 miles from southern Australia, the Buff-breasted Sandpiper to fly 8,500 miles from the pampas of Argentina, and Arctic Terns to fly some 11,000 miles from Antarctic, well, that place must be something special. That special place is the coastal plain of Arctic Alaska, where these birds and millions of others come to breed in a still-remote nursery on top of the world.
News from the wildlife conservation world is rarely good these days, with expanding wildlife trade, climate change, and the ever-growing human footprint pushing wildlife populations into smaller and smaller havens. Yet the announcement from the Department of Interior regarding plans to balance energy development and wildlife protection in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve (NPR-A) – the biggest piece of public land in the United States – is great news for wildlife from across the globe.
The size of Indiana, the NPR-A is one of the most remote places in the world. Yet during its short summer, thawing winter snow and ice thaw reveal thousands of lakes and wet tundra near the coastal plain in the Arctic’s largest wetland complex. Millions of migratory birds arrive from every continent and from every ocean to nest and rear their young. Caribou in the hundreds of thousands also use the coastal plain as a nursery. The environs of Teshekpuk Lake, in the heart of the NPR-A, provides the most important landscape of all for wildlife in the Arctic.
The NPR-A started out as a Naval Petroleum Reserve in the 1920s. In the 1970s administration of the reserve passed to Interior’s Bureau of Land Management. Three Special Areas were delineated because of their wildlife values: Teshekpuk, for breeding birds and calving caribou; Utukok, as the migratory corridor for the biggest caribou herd and its attendant predators; and Colville, where raptors nest in bluffs above the region’s biggest river. Special Areas didn’t necessarily mean special protection from development, however.
Over the past decade, extensive leasing for oil and gas development has occurred in the northern part of the NPR-A, including within the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area. While public attention was on the oil vs. wildlife debate in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the east, the larger and more wildlife-rich NPR-A was off the public radar. It was around that time that I had the opportunity to begin fieldwork in the Arctic for the Wildlife Conservation Society.
My fellow scientists and I have come to understand and document the tremendous role that western Alaska (all contained within the NPR-A) plays for Arctic wildlife. In considering this landscape rich in many resources – oil, gas, mineral, and animal – we sought to identify how best to conserve wildlife amid the expected expansion of energy development westwards from the Prudhoe Bay oilfields. The question was always one of balance, as there was no credible argument to be made for precluding development in a National Petroleum Reserve.
At the same time, Congress has made clear since the 1970s that wildlife conservation is also a management priority. There are many interests competing for prominence within this idea of “balance”: energy companies, politicians local and national, native Inupiats interested in subsistence, sportsmen hunting winter populations of waterfowl in the lower 48 that migrate to Alaska to breed, environmentalists, and the general public interested in public lands.
Science built a strong case for wildlife protection around Teshekpuk and along the coastal plain, and for Utukok as a migratory corridor for caribou. The key conservation study, however, was that of the U.S. Geological Survey, which reassessed the oil potential of the NPR-A and found the reserves to be only 10 percent of what had been originally estimated. That assessment, and the associated relinquishment of oil leases because of poor returns in test wells, helped create more room for wildlife protection in Arctic Alaska.
I, too, have migrated (by plane) every spring for the past decade from my home in Portland some 3,500 miles to the Arctic to be with the far-flung birds like the Bar-tailed Godwit, the Buff-breasted sandpiper, and Arctic terns. I am pleased that balance has been found for both conservation and development in this remote place. It means that the work I love will go on. But it also means that migrations essential to the survival of countless irreplaceable species can and will continue into the future.
Dr. Steve Zack, Coordinator of Bird Conservation for the Wildlife Conservation Society, is based in Portland, OR but can often be seen migrating with birds worldwide.