Sacred Ground

Sixty years after its birth, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a haven for wildlife and native peoples—and a battleground in the climate and energy wars.

  • Paul Tolmé
  • Conservation
  • Aug 01, 2020

Grazing on cottongrass, two caribou from the Porcupine Caribou Herd roam the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which nurtures tens of thousands of the animals on their ancient calving grounds each spring. (Photo by Christopher Miller)

FRIGID, DARK AND DESOLATE during its long and brutal winter, when even polar bears have buried themselves deep in the snow to survive, the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge awakens with a burst of green tussock in late spring, signaling the imminent culmination of North America’s longest land migration—and one of the Arctic's greatest acts of rebirth: the arrival of the Porcupine Caribou Herd on its ancient calving grounds along the Beaufort Sea.

The caribou come by the tens of thousands. Following paths worn into bedrock by ancestors who have migrated to this refugia in northeastern Alaska for thousands of years, they arrive famished from the arduous journey, 420 miles as the crow flies, but in reality, more than twice that distance.

Within days, pregnant cows drop tens of thousands of calves onto the tundra of the treeless plain, whose abundant grasses, sedges and low-lying shrubs provide crucial sustenance for the herd. Born to run, the calves rapidly progress from wobbling on spindly legs to bounding, stopping only to nurse on their mothers’ fatty milk and beginning a life of constant movement, hunted by golden eagles, wolves and grizzlies.

In July, with the arrival of peak mosquito season, the herd, numbering more than 200,000 animals, begins its departure, fording rivers, following emergent green growth into the foothills of the Brooks Range, then breaking into smaller groups as they head to wintering grounds in the Canadian Yukon and southern boundary of the refuge, where their namesake Porcupine River runs.

Witnessing the Porcupine herd’s migration “is an incredible sight to behold,” says retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) biologist Fran Mauer, who spent more than 20 years studying the moose, Dall sheep, peregrine falcons, golden eagles and caribou of the Arctic refuge. He recalls watching, awestruck, as a cacophonous group of 80,000 caribou rumbled across the Coastal Plain, the high snowy peaks of the Brooks Range glowing in the golden light of a midnight sun. “I treasure my experiences there,” he says of the refuge.

With abundant wildlife, along with grandiose, unbroken landscapes unmarred by roads, structures or any visible sign of human development, the refuge is one of the last places on the continent where you can picture the world as it existed thousands of years ago, “like walking back to the dawn of time,” says Adam Kolton, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League.

Often called “America’s last great wild place,” the Arctic refuge is the largest parcel in the National Wildlife Refuge System, completely located above the Arctic Circle in Alaska’s northeastern corner and covering more than 30,000 square miles, an area the size of South Carolina. It is one of the least-disturbed places on Earth, with five distinct ecological regions that span from boreal forests in the south to the forest-tundra transition zone and high alpine, to the undulating treeless plains and coastal saltmarshes along the Beaufort Sea. Created in 1960 by President Eisenhower as the Arctic National Wildlife Range and expanded and renamed in 1980 by President Carter, the refuge celebrates its 60th anniversary this year.

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Arial view of the Okpilak river in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Tiny specks against a vast golden plain, thousands of caribou forage within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where the braided fingers of the Okpilak River and gleaming peaks of the Brooks Range exemplify the unspoiled beauty of what’s called “America’s last great wild place.” Intent on an ancient task, two bull musk oxen (below) face off on frozen ground in the Arctic refuge, possibly sparring in training for breeding season. Feeding on lichens, roots and mosses, musk oxen are among the 37 land mammals that live in the refuge, from massive grizzlies to tiny lemmings.

Unparalleled wildlife haven

The Arctic refuge is a haven for wildlife, home to more than 37 land mammals—such as wolves, grizzlies, lynx, wolverines, lemmings, musk oxen and Arctic fox—as well as eight marine mammals, including bowhead and beluga whales, ringed and bearded seals, Pacific walrus and polar bears. More than 200 bird species populate the refuge, whose Coastal Plain becomes a flurry of avian activity when 1 million or more migratory birds arrive at the same time as the caribou. They come from as far away as Argentina in the case of the American golden plover and Antarctica in the case of the Arctic tern.

Two musk oxen spar on the frozen ground

“You feel like a visitor from another world when you come to the Arctic refuge and Coastal Plain,” says Natalie Dawson, executive director of Audubon Alaska. “It feels like you have entered a very old place, where the natural processes have been going on unchanged for a very long time.”

But change is coming fast. The Arctic region has warmed at twice the rate of any other place on the planet, altering the refuge’s weather patterns and plant communities, melting the permafrost, sea ice and glaciers, and complicating survival for some wildlife. More-frequent freezing rain events that coat the snow with ice are making it harder for musk oxen, for example, to dig for vegetation beneath the snow, a suspected culprit in the declining population of these shaggy, horned beasts. As permafrost melts, natural dams are breaking and draining lakes and ponds and killing fish that diving birds such as red-throated loons feed upon.

Of even more urgency: The region’s ice pack is shrinking at the unprecedented rate of 12.8 percent per decade, which is pushing polar bears—icons of the Arctic—toward extinction. Between 2001 and 2010, the Southern Beaufort Sea population of the bears decreased by 40 percent to about 900 animals. Listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 2008, polar bears evolved to hunt for ringed seals on extensive summer ice pack. As open water increases and ice thins, however, they are swimming farther to find food, stressing themselves physically and nutritionally and reducing survival, especially of cubs.

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A polar bear and her cubs (above) wade ashore near the village of Kaktovik, where piles of whalebones left from subsistence hunts help nourish bears unable to hunt seals from platforms of sea ice, which are shrinking as the climate warms.

Map (below): At more than 30,000 square miles, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a crucial area for polar bear dens, nesting migratory birds and caribou calving and migrations. Yet across the North Slope, drilling wells and pipelines (inset) disrupt habitat and fuel environmental concerns. Now, conservationists are fighting proposals to drill the 1002 Area, a vital calving ground.

A push to drill “the sacred place”

Map of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge including 1002 Area and an inset photo of a caribou herd near a pipeline

Now, at a time when conservationists are urging greater protection for the Coastal Plain—the biological beating heart of the refuge that is known to the indigenous Gwich’in as “the sacred place where life begins”—pressure is mounting to drill for oil there. When Carter expanded the refuge in 1980, designating about a third of it as wilderness, he and congressional allies were unable to win wilderness designation for the 1.5 million-acre Coastal Plain, which was designated the 1002 Area. Thus began a 40-year battle between conservationists and oil interests. So far, efforts to drill the area have failed, but in 2017, President Trump signed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which included language requiring the U.S. Department of the Interior to lease nearly the entire 1002 for oil and gas exploration. As of this writing, the administration had yet to conduct those lease sales, but they could be announced at any time.

Critics call the idea perverse. “At a time when we have a global glut of oil and prices are rock-bottom the idea that we would drill in one of the last pristine habitats is simply obscene,” says National Wildlife Federation Chief Scientist Bruce Stein

To envision what drilling would look like, one only need look across the Canning River that forms the refuge’s western boundary, where one of the continent’s largest industrial areas begins. Thousands of oil wells stretch to Prudhoe Bay and beyond into the National Petroleum Reserve, a region crisscrossed by roads, pipelines, well pads and heavy machinery. “There is no clearer boundary between good and evil than the Canning River,” says Kolton.

Oil companies claim they can explore and drill with little impact to wildlife. Yet a 2020 study shows that in the North Slope oil fields west of the 1002 Area, pregnant female caribou avoid oil infrastructure, essentially decreasing the area available for calving. Oil development in the 1002 would likely trigger a decline in caribou numbers and “have profound ecological effects” across the herd’s range, Mauer says. 

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Greeting the Arctic dawn, Gwich’in leaders meet in Arctic Village (above) during their biennial Gwich’in Gathering. They work to prevent drilling in the refuge’s caribou calving grounds, both to save the caribou and a treasured way of life.

Polar bears in the crosshairs

Polar bears may face the greatest peril, however. Every October, long after the caribou and migratory birds have departed and winter darkness has returned, pregnant polar bear females look for denning habitat. Some den on the ice, but due to shrinking ice pack, more are coming onto land. Up to 29 pregnant females den in the refuge’s Coastal Plain, where they dig shelters 7 to 10 feet deep into snow drifts created by the region’s undulating topography. Because the Coastal Plain contains a third of all land-based dens for the Southern Beaufort Sea population, FWS has designed the 1002 Area critical polar bear denning habitat.

In January, the female bears give birth to two to three cubs, which nurse on their mothers’ fatty milk until emerging from the snow in March. “At this point, she has been fasting for nearly six months,” says Tom Smith, a polar bear researcher and professor at Brigham Young University. “If you push her and the cubs out of the den prematurely, you’ve put the entire family at risk.”

Yet that is precisely what is likely to occur if leasing moves forward. Before drilling, oil companies would search for underground reserves with seismic “thumper” trucks weighing tens of thousands of pounds, driving the giant vehicles across the snow in winter to prevent crushing the fragile tundra. The industry claims it can avoid running over or disturbing polar bear dens by using a heat-detecting, airplane-mounted camera technology called forward-looking infrared, or FLIR, to locate and navigate around denning bears. But a 2020 study by Smith and his colleagues casts doubt. During more than a decade on Alaska’s North Slope, oil companies located fewer than half of the known polar bear dens using FLIR, the study found. Last year, the nonprofit Polar Bear International wrote to federal regulators that oil exploration is “virtually certain to accelerate the current declining trend of the Southern Beaufort Sea polar bear population.”

But there is hope: Lease sales would face legal challenges from NWF and other conservation groups. Drilling also runs counter to public sentiment. According to a 2019 survey, two-thirds of U.S. voters oppose drilling in the refuge. In response to such opposition, many of the world’s largest banks have pledged to no longer finance Arctic drilling.

For conservationists, as well as more than 1 million citizens who spoke out in opposition during a comment period on the leasing plan, the Coastal Plain is a priceless treasure. The Gwich’in, who have inhabited the region for up to 20,000 years, believe that it is a spiritual place. Prior to their forced settlement, these “Caribou People” followed the Porcupine herd for thousands of years, relying on the animals’ milk, meat and hides. Yet there was one place the Gwich’in never traveled: the Coastal Plain. In their ancient wisdom, they understood the importance of leaving this nursery of life untouched by man.

“Some label us as environmentalists and activists, but we are just people trying to protect our land, the land we have relied upon since time immemorial,” says Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, which represents the voice of Gwich’in peoples populating settlements that include Arctic Village at the southern boundary of the refuge along with about a dozen other towns scattered across a wide swath of Alaska and Canada.

In 2014, Demientieff stood atop a mountain in the refuge, looked across the landscape and cried for her people. “I made a promise then to our creator to fight to protect this land. I’m a mother and a grandmother, and I’m concerned that if we don’t stop this drilling, the future of the caribou, and of our people, are in jeopardy.”


Saving Our Arctic Serengeti

The National Wildlife Federation has long fought to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In 1989 and 2001, NWF affiliates passed resolutions opposing oil and gas exploration in areas critical to caribou, polar bears and birds. Since 2017, when the U.S. Congress authorized leasing those areas for energy exploration, NWF has issued environmental comments and urged banks not to invest in drilling. Says Tracy Stone-Manning, NWF’s associate vice president for public lands, “We aim to convince Congress to provide permanent protection for the refuge before it’s too late.”

Seattle, Washington, writer Paul Tolmé is a frequent contributor.

More from National Wildlife magazine and the National Wildlife Federation:

Celebrating America's "Great Land" »
Blog: Rescuing Reindeer: Caribou on the Brink »
Blog: The Unknown Story of the Mighty Muskoxen »

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