At a recent symposium held at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s National Conservation Training Center facility in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, Dr. George Schaller called for increased protection of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern Alaska.
The symposium commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Arctic Refuge and brought together many involved in its storied history including former President Jimmy Carter who signed legislation in 1980 doubling the size of the Refuge, conservation professionals and USFW staff, filmmakers and authors, dignitaries and others. The event showcased the history, science, and conservation efforts that have gone into creating and protecting the Refuge.
Dr. Schaller— considered the pre-eminent field biologist of our time—first went to Alaska in 1956 as part of an expedition co-funded by WCS and led by Olaus and Margaret Murie. The Muries and a small team of scientists spent months cataloging wildlife, studying the area’s various habitat types, and experiencing what Murie called the “precious intangible values” of this dramatic wild place. Based on their observations, they later pushed for recognition of the area as a critical sanctuary of unique and diverse wildlife worthy of protecting.
Dr. Schaller, who is today a Senior Conservationist at WCS and a Vice President at Panthera, returned to the Refuge in 2006 and 2008 and noted that it remains one of the few places on Earth that in the last 50 years has not changed as a result of direct human development.
“It was thrilling to return to the Refuge again and see it still pristine after all this time, and it is humbling to think our work fifty years ago helped secure its protection,” said Schaller. “But we must remain mindful of the constant threat of exploitation.”
The focus of Dr. Schaller’s concerns are threats to the Refuge’s coastal plain. While most of the Refuge is currently protected from energy development, its 1.5 million acre coastal plain—considered the most important habitat for wildlife in the Refuge—is not.
The coastal plain contains critical calving habitat for the 100,000 caribou that migrate from Canada and has the highest density of denning polar bears in Arctic Alaska. Polar bears, facing dramatic losses of sea ice, depend on safe and disturbance-free den sites to rear their young.
“The indigenous Gwich’in people who depend on porcupine caribou call the coastal plain the ‘sacred place where life begins,’ and that is an accurate description,” Schaller said. “Congress must delcare the coastal plain Wilderness Area."
Along with polar bears and caribou, the plain also hosts a rich population of resident Arctic wildlife (including musk ox, Arctic fox, lemmings, gyrfalcon and ptarmigan), as well as the tremendous international assemblage of migratory birds that breed there in the short summer. Myriad waterfowl, shorebirds, loons and songbirds burst upon the coastal plain every May.
Schaller said protecting America’s last great wild places and preserving them for future generations of people and wildlife would be an act of patriotism and social responsibility.
“The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge remains a priceless vestige of unspoiled America belonging to all of us. We must not let it slip away for short term gain,” said Schaller.