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Arctic Blog: A Place for Wildlife
In the National Petroleum Reserve

By Steve Zack, Wildlife Conservation Society

26 Jul 2011

During my four-night stay at our remote Ikpikpuk camp, we were serenaded virtually nonstop by a Smith’s longspur, a songbird usually found in the Brooks Range and adjacent foothills, some 60 miles to the south. He had come to settle where there were no others of his kind. His message was urgent, yet ignored by the Lapland longspurs, savannah sparrows, and other wildlife busy with their lives.

Yale Environment 360 Field Notes
Steve Zack of the Wildlife Conservation Society blogs from the Arctic for Yale Environment 360. The third in a series.

Read the previous entry
When contemplating our conservation efforts in Arctic Alaska, I can relate to “Mr. Smith,” as our field assistants called him. Imagine singing the praises of the biggest public landscape in the United States, though there are few people aware or listening. Imagine that this landscape encompasses the world’s largest Arctic wetland — nearly 200 miles long east to west, 100 miles deep north to south — and that this wetland is home to the most spectacular gathering of migratory birds from all over the world, numbering in the millions. Imagine, as well, that a vast predator/prey spectacle — gizzly bears, wolves, and wolverines pursuing caribou — plays out annually in its foothills. And then imagine that this immense region, about the size of Indiana and bigger than 11 individual U.S. states, will likely have its future decided, its balance of development and wildlife protection, within a year.

This place is called the National Petroleum Reserve — Alaska, or NPR-A. Never heard of it? Most people have not. It is public land, administered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and as its name implies, it contains a large quantity of oil and gas (although a recent study by the U.S. Geological Survey indicated that it contains only 10 percent of the oil previously assumed).

The BLM is expected to rule within a year which of the NPR-A’s 23 million acres can be developed, and which (if any) should be set aside for conservation. The Wildlife Conservation Society (for which I work) and other environmental groups are advocating for a balance of energy development and wildlife protection. We especially want to make sure that the three large “special areas,” delineated by the federal government in the 1970s, remain protected.

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Arctic fox goose egg

A wetland within the National Petroleum Reserve — Alaska.
For the past several years, my colleagues and I have been traveling through this vast, Arctic landscape of tundra, meandering rivers, and wetlands to assess key wildlife habitats. Our core emphasis has been on the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area, centered in the coastal plain amid millions of breeding migratory birds and tens of thousands of caribou.

Our standing and leverage in this debate rest on our science, which involves assessing the quantity and variety of the wildlife around Teshekpuk Lake, particularly migratory birds. This often involves finding and monitoring nests. Depending on the day, our seven-person field team is either rope-dragging a plot — using a 50 meter rope to rouse incubating birds off their nests — or walking in a systematic manner to watch for nesting behavior.

Semipalmated and pectoral sandpipers are perhaps the easiest species to locate. When you are close, the birds try to lure you away from their nests with behaviors that suggest they are injured and vulnerable. But if they fly from a nest we are trying to find, and we can’t pinpoint it right away, we must withdraw and sit with binoculars, awaiting their return and furtive walk back to the nest. It is then that you can find the nest, invariably of four eggs, covered with sedge leaves.

Long-billed dowitchers can be the hardest, as they are the most wary and most reluctant to return to their nests. It can be a long wait.

We use tongue depressors, compasses, GPS devices, and our plot stakes to help us “mark” nests and monitor them. Finding most of the nests in our one-kilometer by 100-meter plots gives us a measure of total density. The breeding success of the birds gives us an estimate of nest productivity.

Collecting these data across years has given us a sufficient sample size to compare and contrast with other Arctic areas, and we have published those results in a scientific, peer-reviewed journal. To date, our studies near Teshekpuk have revealed high densities and high productivity for birds in comparison to studies by us at Prudhoe Bay and elsewhere in Arctic Alaska. Those data, in turn, help to highlight the unique wildlife attributes in the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area.

We use our data, and other information on wildlife, to assert that the wildlife values in this and the other “special areas” are reason to protect them from development. Our overall position is that balanced development in the NPR-A can be achieved by protecting these areas (and a few other key places) with responsible development outside them.

The Teshekpuk Lake Special Area surrounds that lake and contains the most important and diverse migratory bird populations in Arctic Alaska. In addition, the caribou herd that spends its year around the lake is the most important to the Inupiat Eskimos for subsistence. In the northeast corner of this area, geese from Siberia, Alaska, and Canada aggregate in the fall to undergo their flightless molt, the most vulnerable part of their life cycle.

Click to enlarge
Arctic fox goose egg

Alaska Center for the Environment
The “special areas” of the National Petroleum Reserve
The two other large special areas of the NPR-A have different wildlife values. The Colville River Special Area contains the highest densities of breeding birds of prey — species such as peregrine falcon, gyrfalcon, golden eagle, and rough-legged hawk. The other, and very dramatic area, is the Utukok River Upland Special Area. It is here that the largest caribou herd in Alaska, the Western Arctic Herd, roams. Nearly three-quarter of a million caribou move through this system with their young in the spring, surrounded by grizzly bears, wolves, and the highest densities of wolverine known on earth. It is our own Serengeti of predator and prey, and yet virtually unknown to the outside world.

I have been fortunate to have rafted through these latter two special areas — the Colville in 2005 and down the Utukok River last year. My impressions of the Utukok remain vivid: rolling and distinct syncline hills surrounding the meandering Utukok, whose sandy beaches hold the footprints of the myriads of caribou as well as wolf and grizzly tracks. We saw but the tail end of the massive caribou migration (as well as wolves and grizzlies), and yet did get to see a wolverine — the great phantom of the north.

Few have been in the NPR-A, fewer yet in the special areas. Raising the awareness of these places, through science and outreach, is vital as, with the arrival of oil and gas development, this remote part of the world is about to become far less remote.

More Posts

12 July 2011: Unraveling the Mysteries of Migration

19 July 2011: Tracking the Impact of Oil Development on Wildlife

2 August 2011: As Climate Warms, a Shifting Landscape for Wildlife

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