Arctic wildlife have evolved to live in a cold northern climate – timing their lives to coincide precisely with snow and ice melt, freeze-up, and other natural rhythms.
Our vision for Arctic Beringia is its continued vibrancy as one of the most productive marine areas and landscapes on the planet. WCS aims to ensure healthy populations of Arctic wildlife such as polar bear, walrus, arctic fox, muskoxen, seals, and shorebirds continue to thrive. We are working to protect these and other wildlife from pressures related to a rapidly changing climate and the onset of new industrial development while ensuring the region’s indigenous communities can continue to depend on local resources for food and cultural vitality.
Implementing conservation in such a rapidly changing environment can only be effective through working with scientists, local experts, and indigenous communities. Wildlife Conservation Society is committed to this approach. Our collaborations foster understanding of what new risks wildlife face and how species can adapt to their changing environment. We support the development of effective and dynamic conservation strategies at local, national, and international venues. WCS is advancing strategies to protect key Arctic areas, develop best practices for the industrial activities that do occur, and foster local stewardship of wildlife and habitats. The long-term health of both wildlife and people are key measures of success in this globally important region.
Rapid climate warming – twice the rate of the rest of the world – is forcing wildlife to adapt at an unprecedented rate. Winter sea ice is thinner and summer sea ice is receding farther, negatively impacting wildlife such as the Pacific walrus, polar bear, and ringed seal. On land, warmer temperatures lengthen the growing season, allowing shrubs and trees to move north; melting permafrost and causing lakes to drain; and the normally ice-armored coastlines are softening and eroding, reducing critical bird and fish habitat. Finally, the timing of snow and ice melt is earlier, allowing wildlife normally found further south, such as grizzly bear, fox, and some seabirds, to move north and compete with their Arctic counterparts.
Compounding these changes are the threats and disturbances associated with increased industrial development and transportation of people and products. Resource development interests are taking advantage of environmental and economic conditions to increase both offshore and land-based oil and gas exploration and production. The increasingly navigable northern sea routes facilitate escalation in maritime transport, including for petroleum products and chemicals. And, the availability of high-value mineral resources encourages large-scale mining in new areas.
Accomplishing effective conservation in Arctic Beringia involves a complex suite of political jurisdictions. Three nations – Russian Federation, United States, and Canada – as well as local Chukotka, Alaska, and Inuvialuit Settlement Region governments and indigenous political entities must co-ordinate stewardship activities. However, such co-ordination is rarely achieved. As a result, development increases piecemeal with little attention to cumulative and long-term impacts or to the risk of oil spills and their effects on neighbouring jurisdictions.
Advancing Research, Solutions and Collaboration
The Arctic Beringia Program has staff based in Fairbanks (Alaska) and Whitehorse (Yukon), with support in Russia from our Vladivostok Office and collaborating organizations – including Russian Academy of Sciences (Far-Eastern Branch). In addition, WCS staff based in New York, Toronto, and Bozeman (Montana), with expertise in global conservation, marine protection, communications, and international policy, supports and bolsters our efforts in Arctic Beringia. Collectively, and in co-ordination with partners, we bring these resources together at local, regional, national, and internationa:
Advance policy and stewardship solutions that minimize transportation impacts on Arctic wildlife
- Assessing threats from increasing international maritime traffic to marine mammals in the Beaufort, Bering and Chukchi seas and seeking multi-lateral policy solutions
- Supporting indigenous advocacy efforts aimed at mitigating bilateral threats to marine mammal conservation from Arctic shipping in the Bering and Anadyr straits
- Convening stakeholders from Alaska and Chukotka to assess bilateral oil-spill threats and advance community-based response capacity
Increase knowledge about how to support healthy wildlife populations in a changing climate
- Synthesizing scientific research, management needs, and recommendations to conserve Pacific walrus on coastal haul-outs in Alaska and Chukotka
- Measuring climate change impacts to muskoxen herds in Alaska and Chukotka
- Monitoring baseline ecological status of coastal lagoons and fishery dynamics in northwest Alaska
- Understanding ecological dynamics of Herschel Island in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region
- Assessing the National Petroleum Reserve’s status as the North American stronghold for wolverines
- Monitoring migration, productivity, and long-term trends of tundra-nesting birds in Alaska and Chukotka
- Advancing policy-relevant research that addresses the needs of national and international conservation strategies across the Arctic
Mitigate the impacts of development and resource extraction on wildlife and their habitats
- Reducing impacts of industrial infrastructure that artificially elevate the populations of predators (e.g., foxes) and increase predation on tundra-nesting birds
- Research and policy engagement on the role of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, National Petroleum Reserve, and other public lands for Arctic wildlife
- Evaluating restoration strategies for critical tundra habitats in developed areas of the Arctic
- Minimizing the entanglement of yellow-billed loons in fishing nets in Chukotka and Alaska
Arctic Biodiversity Assessment
Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF), was asked by the Arctic Council (international political body of Arctic nations) to prepare an assessment of the status and trends in the Arctic’s biodiversity. Dr. Don Reid was the lead author of the Mammals chapter of this Assessment, which informed negotiations at the Arctic Council meeting where the report was released in May 2013.
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Monitoring the Arctic Tundra as Climate Changes
Dr. Don Reid led the northern Yukon (Herschel Island) component of the International Polar Year project called Arctic WOLVES (Arctic Wildlife Observations Linking Vulnerable EcoSystems). This project involved a globe-circling network of Arctic wildlife observatories for the study of tundra food webs in numerous Arctic locations, and assessing the impacts of climate change on these webs. Much of this work has now been published (see Arctic WOLVES publications), including Dr. Reid’s contributions to a book on the natural and cultural history of Herschel Island.
Resource Development Impacts on Wildlife
Concerned about the risks posed by industrial developments in the Arctic WCS is researching cumulative impacts of multiple industrial projects over large areas of the Canadian Arctic. We work closely with communities in the western Canadian Arctic regarding species of particular economic or subsistence importance to them. WCS Arctic conservation biologists are also addressing these issues in Arctic Alaska and Siberia as part of the larger, regional WCS Beringia program, that is focused on walrus, shorebirds and muskoxen. Many species in this region migrate across national boundaries, so a collaborative transboundary approach is important for their successful conservation.
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