Upcoming Workshop: Community Oil-Spill Response in Bering and Anadyr Straits
November 7 - 8, Anchorage, AK
While several efforts are striving to accomplish the most important first step of minimizing risks of an oil spill in the Arctic, the rapid increase in industrial activities (e.g., offshore oil drilling and international shipping of petroleum products) warrants careful attention to contingency plans that address the risks of oil spills.
Based on the remote nature of the Bering and Chukchi seas, local hunters will likely be the first responders under many prospective scenarios. Consequently, workshop participants will collectively:1) determine what tools can be safely and effectively deployed by Alaskan and Chukotkan hunters and community members to combat small oil spills and be part of a collective response to large spills in select areas around the Bering and Anadyr straits; 2) establish what training and local/regional capacity is required to sustain an ongoing safe and effective local spill response capacity; 3) create a strategy for maintaining a local grassroots spill response capacity in the Bering Strait region; 4) develop a plan to train communities about existing response frameworks and tools; and 5) develop a communications plan to link communities and regional response planners.
Learn more about this workshop, including goals, background and an agenda here
In Arctic Alaska, WCS focuses its conservation activities on the Arctic Coastal Plain located between the Brooks Range foothills and the Arctic Ocean and in adjacent regions of western Arctic Alaska centered in the Seward Peninsula. Together, these regions encompass a vast area (>226,000 km2) larger in size than the state of New York and harboring some of the largest remaining tracts of wildlands in North America (see map). Despite some protection for wildlife through a patchwork of national wildlife refuges, preserves, monuments, and a national park, most of this region, particularly the Arctic Coastal Plain, remains largely unprotected from increasing human disturbance largely through energy extraction activities and also by accelerating climate change.
This region contains areas that are highly important for wildlife. Four caribou herds (Porcupine, Central, Teshekpuk, and Western herds) range across this landscape totaling nearly one million animals. The threatened polar bear and other iconic species such as the muskox, Arctic fox, and wolverine occur here. Alaska’s coastal plain supports internationally important populations of migratory birds that come to breed during the brief Arctic summer. Over 90 species of birds, representing several million individuals, nest and stage in this region including significant populations of shorebirds, waterfowl, and other species. Many of the bird populations that depend so heavily on this region are currently experiencing population declines including shorebird species such as the Buff-breasted Sandpiper and waterfowl including the Spectacled Eider.
Within western Arctic Alaska, the National Petroleum Reserve (NPR-A), at 95,000 km2, is the largest piece of public land in the United States, roughly the size of Indiana. The NPR-A contains a significant portion of Alaska’s coastal plain as well as portions of the Brooks range and foothills (see map). The disproportionately high concentration of lakes, ponds, and wet meadows in the coastal plain region of the NPR-A supports some of the highest densities of migratory bird species in the circumpolar Arctic. In and near the NPR-A, the Bureau of Land Management has identified four regions as “special areas” of high wildlife value including the Colville River, Teshekpuk Lake, Utukok Uplands, and Kasegaluk Lagoon (see map). Despite this designation, these regions are largely unprotected from incoming development and many of the wildlife populations are still little studied and poorly understood – particularly nesting birds.
Western Arctic Alaska is home to several small communities with a total population of less than 10,000 people, the majority of which include Gwich’in and Inupiat indigenous peoples. The local villagers depend on wildlife populations for their subsistence and wildlife are an integral part of their culture.
The two most important challenges of wildlife conservation in the Alaskan Arctic include expansion of energy extraction activities (oil, gas, and mineral development) and climate change.
Currently, oil development is concentrated in the central Arctic Coastal Plain between Prudhoe Bay to the east and the Colville River to the west (see map) and includes the two largest oilfields in the United States (Prudhoe Bay and Kuparuk oil fields) as well as a number of smaller satellite oilfields. The network of roads, facilities, pipelines that make up the oil field infrastructure covers an area roughly the size of Rhode Island. There continues to be political pressure and intense interest by industry to expand oil development from the existing Prudhoe Bay oilfields east into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and west into the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A). WCS is working to explore how human activities, disturbances and direct loss of habitat related to energy development may negatively impact bird and mammal species in this sensitive area.
Projections by the International Panel on Climate Change (www.ipcc.ch) estimate global warming is occurring at nearly twice the global average in the Arctic over the past 100 years. Changes to Arctic land and seascapes are occurring at an accelerated pace, and climate models project a very different Arctic in the near future. WCS is actively working to understand the effects of climate change on tundra ecology and how it impacts the migratory birds (shorebirds and waterfowl) that use arctic Alaska to nest and rear young. Another WCS research project underway in western Arctic Alaska is examining how climate change may be impacting populations of muskoxen.
WCS leads and participates in collaborative science efforts to better understand how wildlife responds to energy development activities and a changing climate. Through these efforts we work with stakeholders to adopt land-use practices that minimize impacts to wildlife. In addition, we work to identify key undisturbed regions, particularly in western Arctic Alaska, that are important for wildlife and seek protection for these habitats. In order to achieve effective conservation, we work with a range of collaborators and stakeholders including government agencies at the federal, state, and local level.
Ecological Footprint of Energy Development in Arctic Alaska
Through on-the-ground, collaborative research activities in key areas of the western Arctic Alaska, focused on the “Special Areas” in the NPR-A (see map), we are determining the importance of these areas for nesting birds and other wildlife and thus helping in the development of effective land-use decisions including recommendations for full protection in some areas and responsible energy development in others. We are also assessing how energy extraction activities can impact Arctic wildlife. These findings enable us to make important recommendations on how changes in development practices can reduce wildlife impacts. Read More >>
Climate Change Impacts in Arctic Alaska
WCS is raising awareness on the effects of climate change on wildlife and wild lands in Arctic Alaska in two ways. First, we are investigating potential climate change impacts to breeding birds at our long-term monitoring sites on the coastal plain and on muskox in the western Arctic through on-the-ground research activities. Secondly, we are working with key stakeholders and collaborators (including USFWS, BLM, conservation NGOs, and academic scientists) to better understand where and how to support wildlife conservation in the Alaskan Arctic with respect to climate change through the development of conservation strategies and adaptive planning. Read More >>
Demography and Migration of Arctic Alaskan Shorebirds
In collaboration with others, WCS is working to assess adult survivorship of key shorebird species including semipalmated sandpipers, dunlin, and phalarope species as part of a North American Arctic-wide project (Arctic Shorebird Demographics Network) to better understand population trends of shorebirds species of conservation concern. Additionally, research is underway to sample for avian influenza in migrant bird populations as well as determine the migratory pathways of dunlin, a species of high concern by the U.S. Shorebird Conservation Plan and a bird of conservation concern. Read More >>