Alaska’s Amazing Western Arctic

Amy Vedder and Nicole Whittington-Evans stop for a photo while crossing Alaska's Ikpikpuk River.

Have you ever been so close to a wild bird that you could see its dark, determined eye while it sat on its nest, or touch its soft, intricate feathers?

Dr. Amy Vedder, senior vice president of conservation at The Wilderness Society, and I recently had this experience in Alaska’s Western Arctic region at a shorebird research field camp organized by the Wildlife Conservation Society. 

The Western Arctic Reserve (officially known as the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska) is west of its better known cousin, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  Like the refuge, it teems with wildlife and is under pressure from those who want to drill some of its most sensitive areas for oil and gas. Our purpose in visiting was to gain better first-hand knowledge of the values of the area and to observe and help field researchers collect baseline data regarding shorebirds and other migratory birds in the area, because much remains unknown about birds in the Arctic.  

To begin our journey, we teamed up with WCS ornithologist Dr. Steve Zack in Prudhoe Bay -- Alaska’s famed industrial complex that was built up around the big Prudhoe Bay oil find of 1968.  With the pilot of our small air taxi, we left gas flares and the haze of pollution behind as we flew west past the Kuparuk and Alpine oil fields and north of the village of Nuiqsut. 

Below us unfolded a vast, wild and beautiful landscape rich in wildlife.  The expansive Colville River Delta was alive with flocks of greater white-fronted geese, tundra swans, and herds of caribou, among other species.  The Colville River drains almost one-third of Alaska’s Arctic, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service  considers this area the largest, most productive river delta in northern Alaska as well as an Aquatic Resource of National Importance.  All the wildlife activity we saw from the plane justifies these distinctions, and it is clear why this is an important subsistence resource area for people living on the Arctic slope.

West of the Colville we skirted the southern shore of Teshekpuk Lake, Alaska’s third-largest, and saw many more birds and caribou as well as tundra covered with the dark lines of thousands of caribou trails surrounding the lake. 

Teshekpuk Lake is still partially frozen around the summer solstice – the longest day of the year, when there is perpetual sunlight in the Arctic.  The lake is also an important subsistence area and provides year-round habitat for the Teshekpuk caribou herd, thousands of nesting and molting waterfowl, and fish. 

As waterfowl such as Pacific black Brant and greater white-fronted geese molt on the shores of Teshekpuk Lake each summer, they are temporarily unable to fly. This makes them particularly vulnerable to predators and human disturbance, and this is one of the reasons Teshekpuk Lake is such an ecologically sensitive area.  It’s also one of the reasons why The Wilderness Society has advocated for this area’s protection from oil and gas development for many years.

Whittington-Evans examines eggs in the nest of a yellow-billed loon in the Western Arctic.

Both Teshekpuk Lake and the Colville River  are Bureau of Land Management  designated Special Areas within the NPR-A. The BLM manages the entire 23 million acres of the Western Arctic’s NPR-A, which was established in 1923 by President Warren G. Harding as an emergency oil supply for the U.S. Navy. 

In 1976, Congress recognized the special ecological and wilderness values of these lands and transferred management of them to the BLM.  That agency has since designated four Special Areas: Teshekpuk Lake, Colville River, Utukok Uplands and Kasegaluk Lagoon, all of which were recognized for their significant values, including a diversity of bird species, caribou and marine mammals such as threatened polar bears, walrus and seals, as well as their wild character.

West of Teshekpuk Lake, the Ikpikpuk river drains north to the Beaufort Sea. The WCS bird research camp to which we were flying was on the Ikpikpuk River just south of the lake.  Our first night in camp was still with the golden, Arctic sun.   We were serenaded by two pairs of yellow-billed loons and a pair of Pacific loons directly adjacent to our camp, their silhouettes just in front of ice remaining on a small lake within yards of our tents. 

The next morning we joined a field crew collecting data on shorebirds.  We didn’t have to walk far before finding numerous bird nests throughout the tundra after their occupants took flight as we approached.  We found many such nests daily – vulnerable treasures scattered across the tundra.  One of the highlights for me was on an island in a shallow lake when we discovered a yellow-billed loon nest containing two olive-green speckled eggs the size of my fists.

The Western Arctic contains one of the largest wetlands complexes in the circumpolar Arctic and provides extraordinary habitat values for birds.  These values are so important that species come from all continents of the globe to nest and raise their young in America’s Arctic. 

A Dunlin is banded as part of a project to gather information about migratory birds in the Western Arctic.

A Dunlin that was banded at this camp one year before our visit was photographed in Japan, where it spent this past winter.  Another, which I had the fortune of releasing, was within 200 meters of last year’s nest site and with the same mate.  We also spotted a bar-tailed godwit that had been banded in Australia, and many Pacific black Brant that winter in Mexico, as well as American golden plovers that winter in South America.

As I stood in this northern landscape – which felt like the top of the world – I came to fully realize how the Arctic is an international crossroads for winged ambassadors converging from all parts of the globe.  We have much to learn from these world travelers – living lightly on all continents and deeply connected to special, life-giving places.  Their natural and ancient rhythms are ceremonial on the Arctic tundra, as are those of the Inupiat who have subsisted in this region for thousands of years. 

We have much to learn from all life in the Arctic and it is our responsibility to ensure that this fragile ecological balance continues over the millennia.