The land of the kings: Alaska’s Western Arctic Reserve needs protections

King Eider in Alaska. Courtesy USGS.

Despite its remote position on the northern-most edge of the United States, Alaska’s Western Arctic Reserve is a bustling place where busy populations of migrating birds, waterfowl and other wildlife thrive. It is the kingdom of the King Eiders, a dramatically feathered Arctic duck species that flocks in mass to the area’s wetlands every year to breed. Unfortunately, the oil and gas industry has its sights set on this once well-established empire near the Arctic coast.

The King Eiders, and the other species that populate the Reserve’s rich tundra, face competition as their habitat comes increasingly under threat from oil and gas drilling.

Like the Arctic Refuge to its east, the 22 million-acre Western Arctic Reserve hosts an astounding abundance of charismatic wildlife. But unlike in the Arctic Refuge, oil and gas exploration is not just a threat at this point. It is a reality.

Created in its current form as part of the Naval Petroleum Reserves Production Act of 1976, the Reserve, also known as the National Petroleum Reserve — Alaska or NPR-A, has seen oil and gas exploration for years.

Fortunately, the Interior Department, which now manages the Reserve, is working on a plan to determine which parts of the Reserve should be off limits to oil and gas development. The Wilderness Society and partners are trying to ensure they receive input that helps them do the right thing by protecting all of the Reserve’s most sensitive lands.

Western Arctic. Courtesy Western Arctic National Parklands, Flickr.And worth protecting these lands are.

Riddled by ponds, lakes and lagoons, the Reserve’s tundra is teeming with wildlife that relies on habitat found in fragile Arctic lands.

The King Eiders, with their regal bright orange and green heads, call the plains and ponds of the Western Arctic Reserve home for several months each year — along with their cousins, Spectacled Eiders, and a host of other waterfowl, shorebirds, and songbirds. This is where many of these sea-ducks are born, and where many return, year after year to continue the species, nesting along the shores of Teshekpuk Lake and the many ponds nearby.

Many other species also call the King Eider’s kingdom home — from polar bears along the coast, to wolves, foxes, musk oxen, and the Teshekpuk caribou herd farther inland.

In particular Teshekpuk Lake has been recognized as a special area that should be protected from oil and gas development. But there are other special areas of the Reserve that are also essential habitat.

What’s important to know is the oil industry has a history of broken promises in Alaska. For example, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, which carries oil from northern Alaska, has had numerous problems with leaks, oil spills and decaying infrastructure; the pipeline is operated primarily by BP, the same company that has crippled the Gulf of Mexico.

The Bureau of Land Management has fortunately realized the importance of the King Eider’s domain for birds and other wildlife like caribou, and has left many parcels of land in the Reserve off the table for oil and gas exploration. But many of the Reserve’s most sensitive lands remain unprotected.

Caribou antlers at forefront of breathtaking landscape. Courtesy Western Arctic National Parklands, Flickr.The BLM has taken the first step, but now they need to take the next one and protect all sensitive lands in the Reserve. Our WildAlert members rallied around this cause throughout  September and together we sent the BLM and the Interior Department more than 50,000 letters before the BLM's public comment period closed. Our message: Keep roads, pipelines, and wells out of the most sensitive areas.

Thank you to all who helped! Your letters are what we need to keep safe the kingdom of King Eiders, polar bears, wolves, and caribou.

King Eider in Alaska. Courtesy USGS.
Western Arctic. Courtesy Western Arctic National Parklands, Flickr.
Caribou antlers at forefront of breathtaking landscape. Courtesy Western Arctic National Parklands, Flickr.