Living among Arctic caribou at Alaska’s Teshekpuk Lake


Wilderness Society President Jamie Williams, second from left, hikes at Teshekpuk Lake with assistant vice president for northwest conservation Bob Ekey (far left),  Alaska regional director Nicole Whittington-Evans (middle) and ecologist Wendy Loya.


Photos: Tim Woody

Teshekpuk Lake is a wildlife-rich habitat in Alaska’s Western Arctic Reserve, also known as the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

Home to 45,000 caribou and millions of birds that migrate here from five continents, Teshekpuk Lake is part of the broader Arctic landscape that The Wilderness Society works to protect. I’m visiting this magnificent lake with staff members from our Alaska regional office before moving on to the community of Barrow, whose residents obtain much of their food from the land and the Arctic Ocean.

Teshekpuk Lake is critical to Alaska Natives, whose way of life is tied to the landscape and its wildlife.

But a new, proposed energy development could dramatically alter this landscape.

That’s why we’re working to make sure that drilling does not occur in and around Teshekpuk Lake and other special areas of the NPR-A.

The federal Bureau of Land Management is drafting a new management plan for the 23-million-acre NPR-A, which is also known as the Western Arctic Reserve, and it could greatly increase protections around Teshekpuk Lake and other special areas.

We want to ensure that this unrivaled place will never be filled with oil rigs and pipelines.

A new management plan for the Western Arctic Reserve could greatly increase protections around Teshekpuk Lake. 

What I Experienced

The scale of this landscape is breathtaking. We are camped at the northwestern edge of Teshekpuk Lake, which is so immense that it feels like we are on the edge of the sea. From the edge of the lake, green tundra extends as far as the eye can see. The immensity of this place is beyond words, and it’s inspiring to walk the pristine beach, feel the wind and see the abundant wildlife. 

Something new always emerges – Pacific loons call from a slough, sandpipers run along the beach, an Arctic fox chases lemmings, and a brilliant white speckle on the green tundra turns out to be a large snowy owl.
This morning we awoke to a herd of more than 50 caribou making their way toward us over the horizon, first just silhouettes of antlers, and then the herd walked by us without any concern for our presence. 

But that was just the beginning of a day in which we came across more than a thousand caribou in waves of 50 to 100 at a time making their way inland from the coast.

The western edge of the lake is a critical corridor for caribou moving between insect-relief areas on the windy coast (caribou don’t like mosquitos either) and their rich calving areas south of the lake.

The abundance of wildlife in Alaska’s Arctic is akin to what Lewis and Clark saw as they crossed the Great Plains more than 200 years ago.  

What is at Stake?

Teshekpuk Lake’s caribou and migratory birds would be negatively affected by industrial development in this area.

Research by The Wilderness Society and other organizations has determined that caribou travel here to give birth and nurse their calves and caribou travel here to migrate past the lake to reach the Arctic Sea coast.

We are urging the federal Bureau of Land Management to strike a balance between development and conservation. 

Specifically, we're urging decision makers to keep drilling rigs out of designated Special Areas while allowing responsible extraction of oil and gas in other parts of the Western Reserve.

Teshekpuk Lake is simply too special to drill.

See also: 

10 reasons to protect Alaska's Teshekpuk Lake

Touring Prudhoe Bay, the epicenter of Alaska's oil boom

7 ugly facts about Prudhoe Bay, Alaska