Alaska's Western Arctic lands: Follow our Alaska director as she investigates shorebirds

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 (WCS).

The Western Arctic is west of its better known cousin, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  Like the Refuge, it is teeming with wildlife and also under pressure 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, as much is not yet known about birds in the Arctic.

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 – to start our journey.  The three of us and the pilot of our small air taxi 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 (USFWS) 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 Lake 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 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.

We recently launched a letter-writing campaign to ensure some of the most sensitive areas of this land are not leased to oil and gas companies.

Both Teshekpuk Lake and the Colville River  are Bureau of Land Management (BLM) designated Special Areas within the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A).   The BLM manages the entire 23 million acres of the Western Arctic’s NPR-A, which was originally 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 golden, Arctic night 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.  As we approached, birds would fly from the delicate vegetation and then we would find their nests - little pots of gold containing warm, vulnerable treasures.  We found many nests every day.  One of the highlights for me was discovering a Yellow-billed Loon nest on an island in a shallow lake that had 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 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 plover 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 life-giving, special 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.

This month, the BLM is accepting comments regarding a lease sale they’ll hold this year covering a significant swath of the NPR-A, even though the U.S. Geological Survey released a study indicating that there are far fewer oil reserves contained in these lands than originally thought.  Portions of the Teshekpuk Lake and Colville River Special Areas are included in the lease sale, as is the Ikpikpuk River where Amy and I experienced the extraordinary birthing grounds for thousands of shorebirds and waterfowl, as well as caribou and other wildlife.  Other important wildlife areas are also included in the lease sale at this time.

Please join us in telling the Department of the Interior that the Teshekpuk Lake and Colville River Special Areas, and adjacent sensitive wildlife habitat as well as sensitive habitat in proposed Special Areas including the Ikpikpuk River, Dease Inlet and Peard Bay should not be made available for leasing.