Arctic Alaska Coastal Plain, USA

Teshekpuk, Alaska Video
Alaska's northern coastal plain is the home to millions of migratory bird species.
Wonderful News from Washington Photo
Christmas came early for caribou and fellow denizens of the Arctic when the federal government announced a balanced development plan for a vast tract of land. Blueprints for the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska ensure protection for Arctic wetlands and migratory pathways utilized by birds and mammals, caribou among them. Though adaptable, America’s reindeer have suffered declines through the years, in part due to changes to their habitat caused by forestry and energy development. WCS has been actively surveying herds, assessing development impacts, and relaying our findings to government agencies. The government’s newly minted plan will support both conservation interests and responsible energy policies.
© Susan Morse
Arctic Alaska Coastal Plain Photo
WCS researchers examine how energy development affects the breeding of migratory birds, many of which travel thousands of miles to this important nesting site.
©Steve Zack

Arctic Alaska boasts the greatest spectacle of migratory wildlife in all of North America. Beginning in late May, millions of shorebirds and waterfowl migrate from every continent and every ocean to breed on the immense wetlands of the coastal plain. Examples include tundra swans from North America, buff-breasted sandpipers from South America, bar-tailed godwits from New Zealand, Arctic terns from Antarctica, parasitic jaegers from the Indian Ocean, and dunlin from Asia. Four immense herds of caribou also migrate to the coastal plain to calve their young, escape predators, and find relief from biting insects. Polar bear, muskoxen, Arctic fox, and other quintessential Arctic wildlife reside here, along with Gwich’in and Inupiat communities that maintain subsistence lifestyles, hunting caribou, bowhead whales, and seals.

WCS has a long history of conservation work in Arctic Alaska, dating back to 1897 when the first biological survey of Alaskan wildlife helped pass laws to control overhunting. Surveys supported by WCS in the 1950s led to the creation of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In 2001, we reestablished an active, on-the-ground presence in Arctic Alaska and today WCS conservationists are working to advance wildlife conservation in this once-remote region, amid a rapidly changing climate and expanding energy development.

Fast Facts

  • Spanning 37,000 square miles, the National Petroleum Reserve (NPR-A) is the largest single piece of public land in the U.S. It is bigger than 11 states and remains mostly undeveloped.
  • Bar-tailed godwits migrate south from Alaska to New Zealand in one continuous flight of 9,000 miles.
  • Arctic temperatures have increased at almost twice the global average; one major consequence is that the summer sea ice of the Arctic Ocean may disappear within a decade.
  • When threatened by a predator, musk oxen form a defensive ring, facing out and surrounding their young.


WCS scientists are investigating how climate change is transforming the Arctic. Sea ice loss and permafrost melting on land are precipitating a cascade of changes that will likely seriously affect terrestrial and marine wildlife. Earlier springs are shifting migratory calendars and nesting habits for some birds, whose chicks may hatch before there is sufficient insect prey to feed them. Some Arctic regions are drying significantly, affecting wildlife species that depend on fertile Arctic wetlands for sustenance. Shorelines are eroding dramatically, creating the need for coastal communities to relocate inland. Regarding the Arctic's shrinking sea ice cover, WCS scientists estimate that polar bears traveling from retreating sea ice will soon have to wander five times as far to reach maternity dens in Alaska. Expanding oil concessions will displace wildlife from important habitat, and the infrastructure of such development makes it easier for predators like Arctic fox, glaucous gulls, and ravens, to reach the nests of migratory birds. Only small populations of musk oxen remain scattered on the landscape. Some of these herds are mysteriously declining.

WCS Responds

WCS is the only conservation group with a long-term, on-the-ground presence in Arctic Alaska. WCS leads collaborative efforts to identify key regions for wildlife in the NPR-A and to gain protections for these areas in advance of development. We are studying how energy development affects the breeding of migratory birds and how best to mitigate any negative effects of new development on wildlife.

WCS has worked to monitor climate change in the Arctic, assessing how sea ice is fading from this region and how that endangers polar bears and other wildlife. In addition, our researchers study musk oxen to understand why some populations are in decline.

WCS Projects

Alaska’s Migratory Birds Cope with Climate Change

The Arctic coastal plain of Alaska serves as the spring nesting ground for millions of shorebirds, waterfowl, loons, and other types of birds. Climate change is interfering with their migration, nesting, and feeding patterns. WCS-North America conservationists study how the birds cope with the changing landscape, and identify key areas for conservation.

From the Newsroom

Arctic Breeding Birds Need Our AttentionApril 24, 2013

Every year, millions of birds migrate to the coastal wetlands of Arctic Alaska to breed. Joe Liebezeit, WCS’s Arctic birds project leader, explains how rising temperatures are dramatically transforming this landscape and the lives of its seasonal residents.

Reindeer Get Good News Just in Time December 21, 2012

Christmas came early for caribou and other denizens of the Arctic when the federal government announced a balanced plan for a huge tract of land in Alaska. Blueprints for the NPR-A ensure protection for wetlands and migratory pathways utilized by birds and mammals, America's reindeer among them. 

Protecting the World's Great Bird NurseryJune 15, 2012

Alaska’s wetlands are home to more than migratory birds: Arctic fox, polar bear, and caribou also dwell in the country’s largest tract of public land.

Walruses Move Ashore as Sea Ice MeltsMarch 30, 2012

As their sea ice habitat diminishes in the Arctic, Pacific walruses increasingly use coastal lands to haul out, and feed in the surrounding shallow waters. Because this phenomenon poses new threats to walrus populations, conservationists are adopting new strategies to monitor and protect them.

In the Arctic, Fewer Icebergs, More ShipsMarch 16, 2012

Marine mammals contend with new industrial developments in the Arctic as local waters become increasingly ice-free during the summer and fall.


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