Meet the Wildlife of the Arctic Refuge
Watching the pair of polar bear moms and their four offspring—two sets of twins—roll around the frozen lagoon, I was reminded how the animals of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge never cease to amaze, inspire, and educate me, sometimes in very unexpected ways. I have been lucky enough to travel to the Refuge many times, and to experience the land and its inhabitants on a very personal level. With each visit, the denizens of the Arctic share something new with me.
I had not been living in Fairbanks very long when I traveled to Washington, D.C. to lobby for protection of the Arctic Refuge’s coastal plain. In the nation’s capital I spent time with Ron Yarnell, a fellow Fairbanksian and wilderness guide with a passion for the wilds of Northern Alaska. After buttering Ron up with tales of my own expertise guiding the wild rivers of my home state of California, I scored an invitation to guide a trip on the Hulahula River the following summer. That first trip was my introduction to the diversity of the Arctic Refuge. I knew about the 125,000 caribou that migrated to the Refuge every summer to give birth and nurse their young, and I fully intended to see the herd. Alas, on that ten-day trip we saw a grand total of five caribou—but I did see wolves, grizzly bears, Arctic foxes, and that prehistoric relic the musk ox. I learned that the Arctic Refuge is the most diverse protected area north of the Arctic Circle on the entire planet. And I was more certain than ever that we must do whatever we can to protect this beautiful place and its inhabitants from the threats of industrial and energy development.
Through the years, I stayed involved with conservation efforts to protect the coastal plain. I followed in the footsteps of great conservation heroes like Lenny Kolm by traveling the lower forty-eight, giving slideshow presentations extolling the awesomeness that is the Arctic Refuge. Once again the wildlife of the Refuge taught me a valuable lesson when I realized that the birds of the Refuge truly connect it to the rest of the United States. The birds born on the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge travel to every other state. Looking at tundra swans in the Chesapeake Bay, ruddy turnstones in South Carolina, or long-tailed ducks in Michigan, I wondered if these were the same individuals I would see again in the summer.
The birds don’t just connect the Arctic Refuge to the lower forty-eight, they connect the Refuge to the world. The Arctic tern is born on the coastal plain in the twenty-four-hour sunlight of the summer, and then migrates a whopping 12,000 miles one way to spend its ‘winter’ in the 24 hours of daylight in Antarctica. This bird spends more time in sunlight than any other creature. The Northern wheatear, a small flycatcher, spends its summer hanging out on the coastal plain with grizzly bears, wolverines, and muskox–but when winter comes, it heads for the warmer climes of Africa, where it hobnobs with lions, giraffes, and hippopotamuses.
I began this blog with the frolicking polar bears of my most recent trip, but the world of these bears is threatened and disappearing. On this last trip I also had the opportunity to visit with a young Inupiat woman, who teaches school in a village on the edge of the Arctic Ocean, surrounded by the lands of the Arctic Refuge. The walls of her classroom were filled with images of the very same wildlife that have meant so much to me over the years. I realized that the people who still live in a way connected to the land have an even deep relationship to the wildlife than I. They have lived with and relied on these animals for their subsistence and their culture for tens of thousands of years; they truly know the value of the coastal plain and the need to keep it safe.
The wildlife and diversity of the Arctic Refuge must be protected. We must act to keep industrial development off the coastal plain, to protect this amazing wilderness for future generations of humans and wildlife.
Column and photos by Dan Ritzman, Senior Campaign Representative for the Sierra Club's Resilient Habitats Campaign.
Take action today by recommending a Wilderness designation for the Arctic Refuge's coastal plain.