Conservation Across the Rapidly Changing Arctic
Arctic wildlife have evolved to live in a cold northern environment – timing their lives to coincide precisely with snow and ice melt, freeze-up, and other natural rhythms.
Rapid climatic 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 species like 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 shorebird, waterbird, and fish habitat. Finally, the timing of snow and ice melt is earlier, allowing more temperate species of bear, fox, fish, and seabird to move north and compete with their Arctic counterparts.
Compounding these bio-physical changes, are the threats and disturbances associated with increased industrial development and transportation of people and products. Development interests are taking advantage of environmental and economic conditions to increase offshore and terrestrial 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 coordinate stewardship activities. However, such coordination is rarely achieved. As a result, development increases piecemeal with scant attention to cumulative and long-term impacts or to the risk of oil spills and their effects on neighboring jurisdictions.
On the Ground Conservation in the Arctic
Our vision is the continued vibrancy of Arctic Beringia as one of the most productive marine and terrestrial complexes on the planet. WCS aims to ensure healthy populations of Arctic species such as polar bear, walrus, arctic fox, muskoxen, ice-dependent seals, and shorebirds continue to thrive in the region. We work 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 natural resources for food security 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 such an approach. Our collaborations foster understanding of what new risks wildlife will be subjected to and how species can adapt to their changing environment, and support development of effective and dynamic conservation strategies at local, national, and international venues. We are advancing strategies to protect key Arctic refugia, develop best practices for the industrial activities that do occur, and foster local stewardship of wildlife and their habitats. The long-term health of both wildlife and human communities are key measures of success in this globally important region.
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 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 coordination with partners, we bring these resources together at local, regional, national, and international venues towards the following goals and activities:
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