Troubled Tundra

Will the wild, still beauty of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — which turns 60 this year — outlive our busy meddling?

ON OUR LAST evening, camped at the gravel strip ten miles from the Arctic Ocean where a bush plane would pick us up, I walked to the Canning River’s edge to rinse the skin and bones of an Arctic char we’d caught for supper from the dishes. Ground squirrels, having staked out riverfront property tunneling into the cutbank’s lip, chittered in alarm, scattering at my approach. Straightening up, I faced a grizzly snuffling along the opposite shore. Then, loping toward it flat-footedly, stopping repeatedly, as if on a dare, one of the North’s most secretive denizens: a wolverine.

During our seven-day 2015 raft trip we’d watched a rare blue-morph Arctic fox, a moose built like a bulldozer, and a peregrine striking a ptarmigan in flight and passing it off to a juvenile bird. Caribou on gravel bars had stepped closer, curious, eyeing us nervously. Sipping coffee on a bluff where we’d pitched tents, we spotted a polar bear lying down on the tundra for a nap. A wolf and later a golden eagle paraded past the boulder-like shape. Capturing such scenes elsewhere might have taken photographers weeks or months.

Everything then, seemed fine.

OVER THE PAST 15 years, I’ve guided many such trips in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, my favorite place. Tourists flock from all over the world each June, July, and August, to spend time in paddle rafts, tent base-camps, or backpacking, watching wildlife, shedding the burden of days lived by clocks. In 2012, I traversed the refuge on foot on a 30-day journey and still did not feel I had seen enough. I don’t travel there merely for work or adventure but to stay sane. And I avoid the acronym “ANWR”; it’s easier to despoil a string of letters than a place of shelter and protection, a sanctuary. Set against the daily erosion of civil liberties, the Commons, and biological wealth, it is my refuge too, and not in a public-lands kind of way. Among large carnivores, normally grizzlies, I feel alert — fully, if at times frightfully, alive.

But even on my sporadic jaunts through this landscape, I’ve noticed disturbing signs: lightning storms, cutbanks slumping atop thawing permafrost, shrunk perennial river aufeis fields, tundra crinkly and dry as tinder. Anecdotal evidence, sure, but evidence of long-term climate phenomena affecting polar bears and their fellow fauna and plants is well established.

Running north from northern Alaska’s Brooks Range to the Beaufort Sea, the Canning River, whose aquamarine flow carried our raft, forms the western boundary of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and its embattled 1002 Area — the 1.5 million acres of coastal plain over which the specter of oil and gas development hangs like a dark cloud. This refuge, a regal spread of marshes, stream deltas, and lagoons, contains the calving grounds of the massive Porcupine caribou herd, named after a Yukon tributary bisecting its range. Abutting Canada’s Ivvavik and Vuntut national parks, it boasts 47 land and marine mammal species, 43 fish species, and nearly 200 different birds. It harbors the highest concentration of polar bears on Alaska’s coast, the Southern Beaufort Sea subpopulation, reduced by 40 percent between 2006 and 2014 due to sea ice loss. At last count, 900 bears remained. Nowadays, their ocean home stays ice-free 36 days longer every year.

photo of arctic refuge
In its entirety, south to north, the 19-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge spans black-spruce-forested piedmont, mountains, tundra, lagoons, and barrier islands. Photo by Lisa Hupp / USFWS.

We’re celebrating the refuge’s 60th anniversary in 2020, though the mood is a tad somber. Travel has been restricted, and my plans to packraft and hike up north with friends are on hold. Alaska has been hit hard by cruise ship and fishing-charter cancellations. Worse, with the public distracted, the juggernaut of environmental rollbacks favoring business curtails the quality of life. Of all life.

This US Fish and Wildlife Service-managed preserve in the state’s northeastern corner was the first ecosystem to receive federal protection, in 1960, when President Dwight Eisenhower set aside 8.9 million acres as a “wildlife range.” In 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which enlarged it to 19.6 million acres, the size of South Carolina, and it acquired the designation by which we know it today. However, the act also mandated that potential oil reserves in the refuge’s 1.5-million-acre coastal plain (1002 Area) be considered for development, if Congress authorized it.

In its entirety, south to north, the refuge spans black-spruce-forested piedmont, mountains, tundra, lagoons, and barrier islands, a lab for continued evolution. As Martin Robards, director of Wildlife Conservation Society’s Arctic Beringia Program says, it provides “connectivity across the Brooks Range between the boreal forest and arctic coastal plain, connecting wide-ranging wildlife and people across borders and cultures.”

The people in question, the ones dwelling in place rather than visiting, live in two villages bookending the refuge: Inupiaq Eskimos in Kaktovik, a whaling community on Barter Island at the northern edge; and Gwich’in Athabaskan Indians inhabiting Arctic Village on its southern boundary. Their connection to wildlife is foremost the hunt. The Inupiat largely rely on bowheads, seals, and waterfowl for sustenance, all of which might be endangered by oil spills in the newly ice-free Northwest Passage or by mishaps at drill rigs on land. Already, sea ice altered by temperature spikes has made subsistence pursuits such as spring whaling from thinning shorefast ice more perilous.

Oil and gas corporations have long lobbied to corrupt this nursery.

The Inupiat’s neighbors in Arctic Village, 150 roadless miles to the south, are known as the “Caribou People.” The residents here, as well as those of 14 other Gwich’in villages on both sides of the US–Canada border, depend on the Porcupine caribou herd. Twice a year, caribou migrate between summer calving and grazing ranges on the refuge’s coastal plain, which is slated for drilling, and wintering sites in the boreal conifer belt. This biannual journey — reminiscent of early nineteenth-century bison abundance — is the continent’s largest land-mammal migration with upward of 200,000 caribou at last count and, at 3,000 miles, is the planet’s longest. It provides over half of all food for Gwich’in families plus material for clothing and tools, for stories, dances, and songs. They call the 1002 Area, “The Sacred Place Where Life Begins.”

“We have a spiritual connection to caribou. They are everything to us,” says Sarah James, an elder and board member of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, spearhead of resistance against refuge oil development.

But oil and gas corporations have long lobbied to corrupt this nursery, backed by Alaska politicians who argue state revenues from oil leases and new jobs should trump wildlife, wilderness nuts, and some of the state’s Native people. Industry experts claim the 1002 Area holds the country’s largest untapped petroleum reservoir, enough to fuel our needs and wants for up to two years, enough to emit 4 billion extra tons of carbon, enough to lock in 70 more years of temperature rises. “It’s pure lunacy to raid a national treasure and sacred landscape,” says Adam Kolton, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League.

The US Congress has always been divided over whether to authorize drilling in these ecologically rich lands.

In 1995, it ordered the 1002 Area’s 147,2000 critical acres to be opened for fossil fuel exploration through a first budget rider, but President Bill Clinton quickly vetoed the measure. A decade later, another effort to invade the refuge for resource extraction, led by then-Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), also died in the Senate.

But pressure to exploit the coastal plain has not lessened, though there might be much less oil there than assumed. The current administration’s 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, with yet another rider, this one stipulating oil and gas lease sales in the 1002 Area by 2021 that has been passed by both the House and the Senate, has been the latest assault.

photo of arctic refuge
The1002 Area lies just east of Prudhoe Bay, North America’s largest oil field. The Alaska Pipeline, pictured, carries oil from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez, Alaska. Photo by Arthur T. LaBar.

In response, the Gwich’in tribe,, Defenders of Wildlife, Friends of the Earth, and 30-some other NGOs, companies, churches, and Native groups, launched the Arctic Refuge Defense Campaign and helped introduce a bill in February 2019 — HR 1146, the Arctic Cultural and Coastal Plain Protection Act — which would restore the protections the 2017 legislation stripped. This new bill, passed by the House last September, is presently stuck at the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

The coalition also plans to challenge the Department of Interior’s Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS), released in September 2019, if companies obtain leases and are preparing to drill. The DOI’s research on the impact of infrastructure on denning polar bears and dangers to water sources in particular was poor, according to critics. In addition, the FEIS was concluded in about eight months, unusually fast, and the required public hearings were held only one week after having been scheduled, with scant advance notice. Canadian officials and Gwich’in expressed concern. “Communities who will be most significantly impacted by the leasing and subsequent activities will receive none of the benefits that could lend to mitigation of these impacts,” a Yukon government spokesperson said.

The Arctic Refuge Defense Campaign has been placing ads in the Wall Street Journal urging financial backers to distance themselves from risky Arctic drilling and appealing to the better angels of corporate shareholders’ natures. Already, this year, three major US banks announced their withdrawal from this venture.

With the ongoing Covid-19-caused public health crisis, the economy teetering, and an acrimonious election looming, it is doubtful the Department of the Interior will officially approve the FEIS anytime soon, which under the current administration seems only a formality. Plans to sell leases in the refuge this spring likewise have been delayed due to the collapse of oil markets, with prices at all-time lows.

The refuge just might be granted another reprieve.

NEVERTHELESS, ON LAND and at sea, changes linked to anthropogenic warming, long documented, are becoming more pronounced.

Emaciated bears swimming several hundred miles, for up to nine days in iceless seas, searching for food and dying, make ominous headlines. Andrew Derocher, a Canadian biologist and longtime Polar Bears International advisor, is seeing bears with lower body fat, fewer cubs, and modified hunting behavior. On Alaska’s North Slope, the state’s northern Serengeti and largest borough, many polar bears unable to hunt for their usual seal staple due to lack of sea ice instead can be found scavenging on carcasses of bowhead whales killed by subsistence hunters outside the Inupiaq Eskimo village Kaktovik. The bears make lucrative tourist attractions but since they also harass residents, sometimes get killed. Derocher predicts the Southern Beaufort sub-population will go extinct by 2050.

Climate disruptions even ten years ago hit the refuge and adjacent regions. Snow cover had diminished by 10 percent. Midwinter freak thaws and re-freezing events sealed off muskox forage and stranded starving herds on barrier islands.

The number of radio-collared polar bears denning on shore meanwhile has tripled, proportionate to sea-ice shrinkage. But with later freeze-ups, many either fail to reach coastal denning sites or reach them later and in a depleted state — before the winter fasting and birthing even begin. Mothers and cubs in sectors earmarked for oil and gas exploration will be exposed to seismic testing conducted with 90,000-pound “thumper trucks,” and to terrestrial pathogens and industrial pollutants.

Average Arctic temperatures have risen some 35 degrees Fahrenheit since 1900, roughly 60 percent faster than in the rest of the northern hemisphere.

For vertebrates, a 2010 joint-agency survey of 306 Arctic species found a 28 percent decline of terrestrial animals at high latitudes. While caribou and waterfowl numbers fluctuate for reasons other than climate, long-term slumps in lemmings in particular — a keystone species dependent on snow for camouflage and insulation — signal a dramatically altered system. Arctic foxes and snowy owls rely mostly on lemmings and suffer when their prey’s numbers crash.

Climate-related “mismatches” trouble caribou, Arctic terns, and migratory songbirds whose arrival no longer coincides with mosquito larvae bonanzas for their chicks to feed on. Birds migrating short distances now arrive two weeks earlier than 50 to 100 years ago. Mosquitoes — crucial pollinators in the Arctic — take wing earlier, grow faster, and survive longer, keeping caribou restless, and bleeding hatchlings and nesting parents instead of sustaining them. Meanwhile, along the coast, protein-rich plants caribou feed on are increasingly well past their prime when herds sweep in from their winter range — a time when thousands of pregnant or lactating cows need extra nourishment.

Shifts have been drastic at less visible levels as well. Underground, thawing permafrost emits record amounts of carbon dioxide and methane, gases that boost global warming further. Average Arctic temperatures have risen some 35 degrees Fahrenheit since 1900, roughly 60 percent faster than in the rest of the northern hemisphere. Winter snow in the refuge doesn’t linger as long anymore, says Ken Tape, a University of Alaska Arctic and Boreal ecologist.

More intense and frequent brush and forest fires on the North Slope spew additional carbon. Watercourses and lakes freeze later in the fall while the spring melt sets in earlier. These patterns have made Arctic lands hospitable to red foxes that are pushing northward, cannibalizing and replacing smaller, native Arctic foxes. Landlubber grizzlies too, are roaming farther than they used to, competing with their pale marine-mammal cousins. In Canada, they have even sired fertile hybrid offspring.

Meanwhile, higher soil temperatures are promoting a lung parasite specific to muskoxen. While the world struggles with an unfamiliar pandemic, it is worth considering the 2016 anthrax outbreak in northern Siberia in which dozens were hospitalized and one child died. The cause was believed to have been a 75-year-old reindeer carcass released by permafrost thawing.

Experts are reporting polar bears with lower body fat, fewer cubs, and modified hunting behavior as temperatures warm and sea ice diminishes in the Arctic. Photo by Cheryl Strahl.

Higher soil temperatures in the refuge are promoting a lung parasite specific to muskoxen. Photo by USFWS / Katrina Liebich.

Climate-related “mismatches” trouble migratory birds like the lapland longspur, whose arrival in the refuge no longer coincides with mosquito larvae bonanzas for their chicks to feed on. Photo by Shiloh Schulte / USFWS.

With trees growing ever farther north during longer summers, beavers are colonizing new Arctic regions, engineering entire habitats, though their resurgence could spring from a historical drop in trapping. Their stick dams bloat tundra streams into wetlands, easily counted on satellite images, which accelerate permafrost thawing by decades: A waist-deep pond can warm bottom muck 50 degrees Fahrenheit above the surrounding air temperature. On average in Northwest Alaska, beavers are advancing 5 miles per year. James Roth, an ecologist colleague of Tape at the University of Alaska never expected to see them on the treeless North Slope, yet he estimates that within two to four decades, they’ll probably settle in there. Fishes and insect larvae will live in the ponds these rodents create, which are deeper and do not freeze solid.

Moose and snowshoe hares similarly follow willows up Brooks Range drainages across the Continental Divide. Moose now thrive hundreds of miles beyond their mid-nineteenth century range. Coastal plain grizzlies and wolves welcome this supplement to their menu. Hare populations, peaking about every decade, however, can curb moose numbers by stripping willows of buds and bark — moose and beaver food. Predators in turn kill more ptarmigans when the birds’ willow cover is depleted.

Arctic Ocean trends mirror terrestrial ones. In June 2019, Beaufort Sea surface temperatures hovered up to 38 degrees Fahrenheit above the average from 1981 to 2010. Such “baking” repeatedly caused extreme seabird die-offs in the neighboring Chukchi and Bering seas. Erosion and sea level rises that force Native communities to relocate also threaten common eiders, which nest at the waterline. Orcas, not adapted to pack ice, stick around northern Alaska’s coast longer now, competing with polar bears and Inupiaq hunters for seals and belugas. Several have starved to death in separate incidents in Canada’s Hudson Bay, trapped by rapidly moving floes. And with ice in the famed Northwest Passage vanishing, Atlantic and Pacific whale populations split by the last ice age currently mingle. During the 2010 record sea ice low, satellite-tagged bowheads from both ends of the Arctic crossed paths in the passage.

Roger Kaye, who has visited the refuge for more than 40 years as a USFWS pilot and wilderness specialist, says differences he’s witnessing there are dramatic and prospects “really scary.” As founder of the Anthropocene Working Group, he has studied “best science” prognoses for the Arctic and this part of Alaska, which tend to be conservative. “We’re zooming past them already, and it’s not realistic to think this will be kept as a natural landscape.” He asks, “Should we try to resist change?” contemplating rewilding, assisted migration, and other scenarios.

What does it say about us as a species, a country, if we can’t guarantee the integrity of such enclaves?

An attempt has been made in Siberia to fill mammoths’ ecological niche — they formerly roamed Alaska, knocking down trees and compressing snow, and thereby kept soil cooler and permafrost from melting — with similar grazers and browsers, such as buffalo, in a “Pleistocene Park.” Shoring up crumbling coasts now pummeled by waves no longer restrained by sea ice is another form of mitigation, though the magnitude is daunting and it would have to be limited to human settlements.

Overall, Kaye seems to suggest that we let the Arctic change, which is inevitable, and that we learn to live with those changes. He never raises the subject of geo-engineering, a whole new, scary level of quick technological fixes with unknown repercussions.

THE GRIZZLY AT THE Canning River had bedded down for the night, night that looked like afternoon. Sunset painted the northwestern horizon with a garish smear. A string of geese sailed right through it, black cutouts drawn by instinct to staging grounds near Beaufort Lagoon. To the north, orange gas flares and red strobes turned the night into a mad carnival. They spelled the potential undoing of all we’d experienced that week. They marked Prudhoe Bay, home to North America’s largest oil field, where extraction outweighs procreation, where stillness yields to big business, where Earth and its creatures take second billing.

photo of arctic refuge
The author at Ivishak River, which flows through the northern foothills of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to join the Sagavanirktok River on the coastal plain, 50 miles south of Prudhoe Bay. Photo courtesy of Melissa Guy.

I can’t help but wonder how the refuge will change in the next 15, 30, or 60 years. Will I have to bushwhack through willows and alders farther up north, as I already routinely do on the range’s south side? Will thunderstorms become a normal hazard like stream crossings in June? Will the days be too hot to hike, too smoky to see mountaintops? Will the animals leave, die, or lie low much of the time? Where could they go? And what does it say about us as a species, a country, if we can’t guarantee the integrity of such enclaves, not even for the duration of one person’s lifetime?

I won’t be around for the 100th anniversary; but on the 60th, it would be a great comfort to know that this wildlife haven has a chance to endure, to be loved and enjoyed by others who will succeed me.

The fight for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is not just a fight against creeping privatization of public lands, against the erosion of wilderness and of democracy. As Adam Kolton says, it’s “a fight for a cleaner energy future and safer climate for all Americans.” Each barrel of crude that stays buried buys precious time for the planet’s nonhuman inhabitants, and for us. As our attention is riveted elsewhere, on this pandemic, racial injustice, and economic woes, and the current administration continues to sap environmental protections and science, we should heed the far north.

What happens there today will concern us all tomorrow.

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