Yukon Flats Safe at Last!

Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska. Courtesy USFWS.

Last week the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced its decision to identify the “no action alternative” for a proposed land exchange under consideration for the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. This means the agency has no plans to move forward with a land exchange, which would have traded lands now in refuge protection for lands owned by the Doyon Corporation and allowed oil and gas development on more than 200,000 acres adjacent to a designated Wild River and National Recreation Area.

The decision is great news not only for the refuge and the incredible wildlife and water resources it was established to protect, but also for the native people who live within or near the boundaries of the refuge. At least for now, their way of life, which depends heavily on hunting, fishing, and gathering food directly from the land, can continue free from concerns about the impacts of oil and gas development.

The decision not to move forward with a land exchange is especially important in the context of our changing climate. The Yukon Flats refuge is one of the places in Alaska where scientists are documenting the earliest evidence of climate change, including warmer temperatures, shrinking lakes, and more wildfires. Already, some species are showing signs of stress, including salmon, which is a staple food source for local people.

Male Canvasback Duck at Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge. Courtesy USFWS.Had the land exchange gone forward, it could have opened the door for oil and gas development and an additional layer of impacts to fish, wildlife and plants already vulnerable in the face of climate change. Instead, the Fish and Wildlife Service — with its announcement last week — appears to have chosen to keep the refuge free from development impacts, taking an important step to create the best possible conditions for species to adapt.

For example, warmer temperatures may reduce the number of lowland lakes where birds can rest, feed, and build nests, but bird populations may not be affected if adequate upland lake habitat is protected and can serve as a substitute when lowland lakes disappear. If that upland habitat were compromised by oil and gas development, however, the birds would be out of luck.

The Wilderness Society worked closely with Native Alaskans and organizations to ensure that local voices were heard and included in the public process. Among the groups that were most active in commenting on the exchange were the Gwichyaa Zhee Gwichin Tribal Council and the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council. Working with these groups, and other conservation partners, we helped to educate the Fish and Wildlife Service about climate change and other concerns about impacts to the fish, wildlife and subsistence resources of the refuge.

Wilderness Society staff ecologist Wendy Loya brought to the agency’s attention the most current climate projections for the Yukon Flats Refuge, and included this information along with our other detailed comments explaining how the proposed land exchange could undermine the purposes of the refuge.

We are pleased to see that our hard work has paid off.

Click here to learn more about The Wilderness Society’s work to protect the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge. 

Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska. Courtesy USFWS.
Male Canvasback Duck at Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska. Courtesy USFWS.