Arctic NWR

Once the float plane leaves, you’re on your own in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge – that is, if you don’t count the thousands of caribou and migratory birds that claim this refuge as their home.  The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge offers a special and remote wilderness experience.  Though it’s not the largest wilderness area in the United States, it is one of the best known – largely due to legislative battles over an area of the refuge known as section 1002.  

Section 1002 lies outside of the refuge’s designated wilderness boundaries.  President Reagan’s former Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton called it “an area of flat, white nothingness,”  and she – and other oil drilling proponents –  claimed that oil could be extracted with little to no impact on wildlife thanks to new drilling technologies.

But ecologists view 1002 as an integral part of the greater ecosystem and question whether development can be done with so little impact on  caribou herds.  And conservationists question whether the amount of oil produced would be worth the price of opening up one of the last wild intact ecosystems to development.  We may soon know the answers since President Trump ordered the Interior Department to open 1002 to oil and gas leasing in a rider to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017.

The refuge is a haven for polar, grizzly and black bears and 42 other species of marine and land mammals – including wolves, wolverines, moose, muskox, Dall sheep and caribou. The refuge’s bird list tops out at 180 species, including six species of owls and four species of falcons and loons. Migratory waterfowl and shorebirds flock to the refuge and breed on the north slope tundra.  And the rivers and lakes harbor 36 species of fish. 

The Porcupine caribou herd numbers 123,000.  They winter in the southern portion of their range and move north to their calving grounds on the Arctic coastal plain in April.  Born in early June, young caribou have only a few weeks to ready themselves for the next migration.  By late June and early July, caribou are again on the move, heading to higher ground in the Brooks Range.

Polar bears that frequent the refuge are part of the southern Beaufort Sea population.  Although they spend much of their time on pack ice, pregnant females return to land in November, digging their dens in snow drifts.  They emerge with their cubs – normally one or two – in March or April.

A polar bear keeps close to her young along the Beaufort Sea coast in Arctic NWR. (Susanne Miller/USFWS)

Grizzly bears at ANWR hibernate for up to eight months.  They choose rock caves in the mountains south of the coastal plain or dig their dens in sandy soils in mid-October.   Due to their longer hibernation period, they are smaller than the grizzlies found in more temperate climates of Alaska.

The best time to visit the refuge is between mid-June and early August.  Because ANWR is roadless, access is primarily by air via Fairbanks connections to Fort Yukon, Arctic Village, Deadhorse or Kaktovik.  From these locations, bush pilots can be hired for the flight to the refuge.

To see the refuge through the eyes of a twelve-year old boy, watch the video below.   Additional information is available from the US Fish and Wildlife Service:  Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

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