#MapMonday: Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Lindsay and our Alaska Program Director Nicole, explore the expansive, breath-taking, and wildlife rich Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. You can explore the story map here.

Click to view video transcript

Hey there and happy Monday! This year marks the 60th anniversary of one of the largest unspoiled, intact ecosystems left on the planet, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

It covers 19.3 million acres - the size of South Carolina! It also harbors the greatest biodiversity of any protected area north of the Arctic Circle. The Arctic Refuge is part of the National Wildlife Refuge System which was created in 1903 by Teddy Roosevelt as a promise to preserve wildlife and habitat for the benefit of all Americans.

Its very existence is thanks to concerned citizens eager to protect America’s wildlife. Defenders works to ensure that National Wildlife Refuges like the Arctic Refuge continue to serve this purpose.

However, oil companies and the Trump administration are fighting to open an essential area of the Arctic Refuge to drilling: the coastal plain. The proposed development threatens the survival of global migratory seabird populations, the world’s most endangered polar bear population, the Porcupine caribou herd - all of which rely on the coastal plain.

In addition, the livelihoods and cultures of native peoples - particularly the Gwich’in and Inupiat - are integrally tied to this landscape. Clearly, there is a lot to lose if we don’t take action.

One of the major elements at stake is the amazingly unique and healthy ecosystem that the Arctic Refuge protects. In addition to being the largest National Wildlife Refuge, Arctic Refuge is also the furthest north located in northeastern Alaska.

And at the northern tip of this northernmost refuge is the coastal plain - a large region of low-lying, tundra-rich land. Over 300 animal species depend on the Arctic Refuge and coastal plain, including some threatened and endangered species like spectacled eiders, ringed seals, bearded seals, and the most imperiled polar bears in the world, the Southern Beaufort Sea population.

These polar bear mothers use the coastal plain and surrounding areas to create dens where they give birth to their cubs. Nearby sea ice is an essential source for food and hunting.

Unfortunately, the most important onshore denning habitat for polar bears in America’s Arctic is caught between a rock and a hard place. On the coastal side, rapidly warming temperatures and disappearing sea ice mean that polar bear habitat is melting away and they are increasingly forced on to land.

Therefore, the Refuge lands will become even more essential to polar bear survival. However, the proposed expansion of oil and gas development into Arctic Refuge lands would have significant negative impacts on this and other Arctic species.

For example, oil exploration and construction could damage polar bear denning sites, destroy critical habitat, and potentially kill bears by causing mothers to abandon their cubs. Our Alaska field team is working hard to champion polar bears and other wildlife in the Arctic Refuge. Here is Nicole, our Alaska Program Director with more.

Thanks, Lindsay! I’m Nicole Whittington Evans, the Alaska Program Director for Defenders of Wildlife and I have been fortunate enough to travel to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Northeast Alaska numerous times over the last several decades and I can tell you: it is an extraordinary and wild place.

It’s a vast landscape filled with boreal forest, lakes, beautiful rivers, the high alpine peaks of the Brooks Range, the foothills, and the flat tundra coastal plain that leads to the Arctic Ocean.

During my trips, I have seen wolf pups emerge and play in front of a den; adult wolves howling back and forth on ridges across a river valley; caribou by the hundreds moving across the landscape, including swimming right in front of my raft on the Kongakut River.

I’ve seen musk ox grazing, grizzly bear foraging, polar bear mothers and cubs playing, splashing in water, and moving across the tundra in search of food and countless nesting birds protecting their eggs or tending to their chicks. It is an unforgettable place and a place one always wants to return to.

Polar bears have always been a fascination of mine and I’ve been lucky enough to see them both in Canada and Alaska. They are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act and the reason that the Southern Beaufort Sea population of polar bears is considered the most endangered on the globe is because it has suffered the greatest amount of sea ice loss and their population numbers have diminished by half in the last 40 years.

The most recent population estimate puts the Southern Beaufort Sea population at about 900 bears. As the climate continues to warm, these bears will suffer greater sea ice loss - their primary habitat where they hunt for prey. We cannot afford for this imperiled population to suffer even greater threats by allowing oil and gas exploration and development precisely where they den and birth their cubs. Please join Defenders of Wildlife in our efforts to protect the Arctic Refuge coastal plain and restore the Southern Beaufort Sea population of polar bears. Thank you and now back to Lindsay!

Thanks, Nicole! Our story map on the Arctic Refuge holds more information about the wildlife and the peoples that rely on this amazing landscape and highlights many of the challenges that Defenders face in protecting this sacred place. You can learn more about the brrrrilliant work of the Alaska team by visiting the Defenders’ Arctic and polar bear website. Thanks for your continued support and see you all next #MapMonday!

Lindsay Rosa
Senior Conservation Scientist

As a Conservaion GIS Scientist with the Center for Conservation Innovation at Defenders, Lindsay leads geospatial analysis projects to improve conservation policies and practices.