Alaska’s Izembek Wildlife Refuge: Why a road should not run through it

Izembek Lagoon and Amak island, Alaska. Photo by Chris Dau, Courtesy USFWS.

If you live on the West Coast and happen to spot a Pacific Black Brant headed north or south, you could bet your wallet that it’s either headed to or been to Alaska’s Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of sea and shorebirds flock to Izembek’s large, shallow lagoons either on their way in or out of Alaska, where many of them feed on the largest beds of eelgrass in the world. This includes nearly the entire population of Pacific Black Brant, Taverner’s Canada goose and emperors goose who land in Izembek each fall.

Izembek’s tranquil land of lagoons and wetlands on the western tip of the Southern Alaska Peninsula is, in fact, one of the most important bird destinations on the Pacific flyway.

So key is Izembek to Pacific coast birds, it was the first area in the U.S. ranked as a wetland of international importance for migratory birds. But, sadly, this mother of all birding destinations has come under grave threat this year.

Despite Izembek’s status as a federally protected area, the Department of the Interior is considering an astoundingly incompatible proposal that would allow a road to be built straight through the heart of the refuge, a designated Wilderness area.

Tundra swan cygnets. Courtesy USFS.The road would cut through a currently untouched isthmus separating two large lagoons which combined with the isthmus make up Izembek’s Lagoons Complex — the biological hotbed of the refuge — sending rumbling vehicles through a narrow strip of land that divides Izembek’s saltwater lagoons. This area is not only critical to the migratory birds, but it’s the heart of a vibrant coastal ecosystem that attracts and teems with Alaskan wildlife, and is the only migration corridor from one side of the refuge to the other for brown bears, caribou and wolves. The isthmus is also critical to Izembek’s nesting tundra swans which are the only non-migratory tundra swan population in North America. All of these animals depend on the ecosystem remaining intact.

For birds like the Pacific Brant who depend on the refuge’s eelgrass to fatten up prior to migrating long distances, the road could compromise their ability to acquire the sustenance needed for making these long migratory flights, affecting the long-term viability of the population. For the Southern Alaska Peninsula Caribou Herd, a fragile herd whose numbers have dropped from 10,000 to 1,000 in the past ten years, the road could divide and ultimately undermine the already stressed herd. And for the brown bears attracted to the area for its low human activity and unroaded wild habitat, the road could interfere with feeding, breeding and denning.

The impact that just one road can leave

A road may seem small on the surface, but, in fact, roads have tremendous impacts on wildlife behavior and movement. At the most obvious level, roads lead to the direct death of wildlife through accidents during construction and deaths from collisions with vehicles. But animals also modify their behavior to avoid roads, impacting important nesting, mating, feeding and migration rituals.

Caribou in Izembek, Alaska. Courtesy USFWS.Even one road can permanently alter habitat and whole ecosystems by contributing air, water, and noise pollution. And wetlands are at particular risk as roads can increase sediment and change hydrology and ecological functions.

Read more about the damages roads can inflict here.

Plainly put, a road through Izembek could irrevocably damage one of the world’s most ecologically unique and important ecosystems. And more than that it would set a dangerous precedent for other wild areas already protected by Congress.

To save this one-of-a-kind place from deep and irrevocable damage, The Wilderness Society and numerous conservation groups are working together to convince the Department of the Interior not to allow the road proposal to move forward.

Izembek Lagoon and Amak island, Alaska. Photo by Chris Dau, Courtesy USFWS.
Tundra swan cygnets. Courtesy USFS.
Caribou in Izembek, Alaska. Courtesy USFWS.