Striking Balance in the Arctic

October 13, 2010

WCS asks the government to fully protect “Special Areas” in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve for caribou and migratory birds.

The Department of Interior is planning to assess Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve for energy development. Spanning 37,000 square miles across western Alaska, the NPR-A is the biggest piece of public land in the United States. For now, this Arctic landscape is mostly undeveloped and home to caribou, grizzly bears, wolves, and a wide variety of birds, among other northern wildlife.

Sending public comments to the Bureau of Land Management, WCS has asked the government to permanently protect certain places within the NPR-A that are vital to wildlife. WCS also urged the BLM to form a scientific advisory panel for evaluating how to manage the land in the face of energy development and climate change.

“Western Arctic Alaska has the largest wetland complex in the entire polar world, hosting a truly international assemblage of migratory birds that come to breed in huge numbers," said Dr.Steve Zack, a scientist who has led WCS studies of Arctic wildlife for the past decade. "We feel that there is room for balancing wildlife protection with energy development in this landscape rich in many resources, including wildlife. By protecting the existing Special Areas from all future development, that balance can be achieved and wildlife conservation secured.”

Permanent “no lease” provisions for the Teshekpuk Lake, Utukok River Uplands, and Colville River Special Areas would offer protection for some of the world's last great wildlife spectacles. Teshekpuk Lake surrounds caribou calving grounds and wetland habitat that draw waterfowl, shorebirds, songbirds, and loons from across the globe. The Utukok River Uplands shelter wolves, bears, wolverines, and the calving grounds of Alaska’s largest caribou herd. And the Colville River protects the Arctic’s biggest populations of breeding birds of prey, including gyrfalcon, prairie falcon, and golden eagles.  

Over the summer, WCS CEO Dr. Steven Sanderson, Zack and other WCS scientists traveled up the Utukok River to determine which scientific studies were needed to inform our government of policies that could balance development and wildlife protection in the area. (Read a daily blog of their expedition.) In the past, WCS collaborative studies have shown how oil development can affect wildlife indirectly by attracting predators to areas with garbage and development infrastructure.

In addition to the three Special Areas, WCS hopes Peard Bay, Dease Inlet, and the Kasegaluk Lagoon will also provide safe habitat for wildlife into the future. Despite their high levels of biodiversity, these wetland areas are not currently protected by the BLM. 

“The NPR-A is internationally important for wildlife populations, which are threatened by energy development and dramatic climate change,” said Dr. Sanderson.  “As stewards of our planet and its fragile ecosystems, we need to conserve these large Special Areas to allow the magnificent wildlife here to thrive for generations to come.”

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