Grantee Spotlight: From the Arctic to Everyone’s Backyard

As a keystone grantee in our Alaska Advocacy strategy, Audubon Alaska plays a critical role in conservation efforts in the regions of Alaska that are priorities for the Foundation: the Western Arctic, the Arctic Ocean, and the Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska. Audubon’s reputation and track record in providing the research and analysis necessary for the conservation community to make reasoned and defensible decisions about wilderness proposals, and provide substantive responses to development proposals for these regions is essential. Audubon Alaska is a vital force in protecting the key landscapes of Alaska.

Audubon Alaska works to ensure Alaska’s most sensitive wildlife habitats are protected as pressure to exploit our natural resources increases. Audubon uses innovative science and mapping technology to identify ecological hotspots and focuses policy efforts to protect these most sensitive areas. In Alaska, Audubon has identified over 207 Important Bird Areas (90 million acres), habitat essential for birds across the state. Their outreach and policy efforts advocate for permanent protection of the most ecologically important areas, particularly the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Established in 1960 for the purpose of preserving unique wildlife, wilderness, and recreational values, the 19.6 million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and its coastal plain is an exceptional example of a complete, intact, arctic and subarctic ecosystem on a vast scale. The Arctic Refuge includes lowland tundra, freshwater wetlands, coastal marshes, mountains, and lagoons – making it unique among conservation management areas in the United States.

In 1980, Congress enlarged the refuge and clearly identified the conservation of “fish and wildlife populations and habitats in their natural diversity, including…snow geese, peregrine falcons and other migratory birds…” as one of its major purposes.

Birds are often hailed as symbols of freedom and the amazing migrations of the millions of birds that visit the Arctic Refuge excite the imagination and tangibly link this irreplaceable refuge with people across the entire nation and throughout the world. One hundred eighty species of birds have been recorded in the refuge. Their migrations take them to each of the 50 states, and they cross great oceans and follow distant coastlines to reach the lands and waters of six continents.

About 70 species of birds nest on the narrow Arctic Refuge coastal plain, between the rugged Brooks Range and the ice-bound Beaufort Sea. In 2015, President Obama called for the permanent protection of this vulnerable area by recommending a Wilderness designation for this extraordinary landscape, the first administration to do so. Most of this same coastal plain – the biological heart of what is now an intact, wild Arctic ecosystem – is contained within the 1.5-million-acre “1002 Area,” where only congressional action can change the law to allow oil drilling or establish a fully protected wilderness area. Audubon Alaska supports President Obama’s call for wilderness designation through advocacy and outreach for these and many other reasons:

  •  The Arctic Refuge, including its coastal plain, has extraordinary value as an intact ecosystem, with all its native birdlife. The millions of birds that nest, migrate through, or spend the winter in the refuge are conspicuous and fundamental parts of the refuge ecosystem;
  •  The construction and operation of a sprawling industrial oilfield would reduce bird populations through the inevitable loss, degradation and fragmentation of habitat in the narrow coastal plain;
  •  If the refuge is left whole and free of the influence of oil development, its birdlife can serve as sentinels, helping scientists evaluate the effects of environmental change on Arctic ecosystems.

In sum, the combination of habitat loss – plus human disturbance, increased predation, and other indirect effects of oil development – would reduce the value of the Arctic Refuge coastal plain for migratory birds. Over time, fewer birds would nest or stop in the refuge, and species with small, declining, or vulnerable populations would be most at risk. In the event that an oil spill were to reach coastal lagoons, the threat to bird populations would increase dramatically. The loss of birdlife that would follow oil development in the Arctic Refuge would diminish its value to everyone, including subsistence and sport hunters, backyard birdwatchers, scientists, and outdoor enthusiasts around the world.

Audubon Alaska is a valuable partner in ensuring that the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge is permanently protected as designated Wilderness – not just to save one of America’s last pristine wildlife areas, but also to save migratory birds in everyone’s back yards.