The Other Arctic
There is good news, however. Even as the energy companies bore into the tundra, there could be a chance—unprecedented in the history of the reserve—to protect key wildlife areas from further drilling and establish conservation measures across the entire region. The BLM is currently working on a “comprehensive plan,” an evaluation of all the reserve’s resources that would give the BLM the opportunity to delineate zones for lease sales while protecting key habitats in special areas like Teshekpuk. The plan, to be shaped by public comment when the draft environmental-impact statement comes out early next year, may be the last hope for providing the mandated conservation balance in the reserve as terrific pressures mount to “drill, baby, drill” and as industrial infrastructure creeps west from Prudhoe Bay to the Colville River Delta, where ConocoPhillips is seeking permission to build a bridge, road, and pipeline into the reserve.
“The proposed road and bridge project would be the first permanent infrastructure for oil development within the NPR-A, and the manner in which this proceeds has important implications for future development,” says Eric Myers, Audubon Alaska’s policy director. “What’s most important is how and where any development takes place. And that the new BLM planning effort offers the opportunity to avoid the kind of industrial sprawl we see across the central Arctic from Prudhoe Bay.”
In my role as a field biologist studying loons, I’ve crammed boots, binoculars, layers of fleece and wool, and mosquito head nets into my old pack and made more than a dozen summer forays into the vast, lake-riddled grasslands that comprise the heart of Alaska’s western Arctic. I work with a team looking for ways to conserve the yellow-billed loon, one of the rarest birds nesting in the United States. Each year between 3,500 and 5,000 of these birds return to the reserve, where they have only a brief open-water season to nest and raise their young (some lakes never thaw entirely during the far north’s fleeting summers). The loons are already threatened by the pollution contaminating their wintering grounds in China’s Yellow Sea as well as by accidental drownings in gill nets. Industrial development now threatens to invade the breeding grounds of these retiring loons with construction noise and traffic; habitat loss to drilling pads, pipelines, and roads; changes in water flow and lake levels; and, of course, contaminating spills. Currently the development connected to Prudhoe Bay averages more than a spill per day. Most are small, but even small spills can oil loons and kill their eggs.
On the Fourth of July in 2002, a handful of USGS research biologists and I first set foot on the tundra to begin our yellow-bill studies. It was snowing. Some of their two-egg nests had already hatched. We banded and measured the loons we captured, and took blood and feather samples to test for poisons. We also fitted a few of the loons with satellite transmitters, which would eventually divulge their migration route—not to the Gulf of Alaska, as many scientists had presumed, but to Asian waters. Most years we returned, sometimes more than once, to continue our studies. This late June I was back, watching my quarry from a low hillside of cottongrass and purple-flowered moss campion by the Ikpikpuk River on the western edge of the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area, the first conservation battlefield in the reserve.
Teshekpuk Lake, the largest lake north of the Brooks Range, is so big it creates its own weather—a layer of sea fog avoided by pilots. Hundreds of thousands of birds migrate here to nest each summer, returning from five continents and all the world’s oceans. Tundra swans, imitating the hoarse croaks of sandhill cranes, fly in from North Carolina. Greater white-fronted geese arrive from Texas, along with their delightful laughter. Buff-breasted sandpipers from Argentina appear in their diminishing numbers, the males immediately performing unabashed dances to attract mates. Bar-tailed godwits, with their long upswept bills and eponymous sideways striped tails, wade up to their belly feathers along the lake’s edges, a prelude to additional foraging in western Alaska. Once fully fattened, they will fly nonstop back to New Zealand over the broad Pacific, burning half their body weight on the way.
Up to 37,000 Pacific black brant—one-third of the world population—from across at least 10 different nesting colonies in Alaska, Canada, and Russia flock to the region every year to an array of lakes primarily north and east of Teshekpuk. Here they find nutritious sedges to fuel the production of new feathers and the coming autumn migration, ample area to escape predators while they’re flightless, and an undisturbed setting for both. Some 35,000 white-fronted geese plus thousands of Canada and snow geese raise the molting population some years to nearly 100,000. From our floatplane they appear as small flocks, racing in unison at the sound of the engine, eventually coalescing into throngs of thousands. Along the shorelines we kick through windrows of molted feathers, gathered up by the Arctic wind. “These wetlands are internationally recognized as the most important goose-molting habitat in the circumpolar north,” says Eric Taylor, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s waterfowl management branch chief in Alaska. But it wasn’t birds alone that caught the attention of Congress in 1976.