Even the most seemingly pristine and picturesque environments contain elements out of balance. One of the sadder facts of the wild and open Western Arctic landscape is that some of the amazing animals there are of special concern, threatened, or endangered. The global sweep of human economic activities have transformed the planet, wreaking havoc with most ecosystems on Earth, and the Arctic bears the brunt of that activity as much as any other spot. The current extinction event we are experiencing has a global reach, as well. Over the course of the planet’s history, 95% of all species that lived have gone extinct. While genetic lines running their course is a natural fact of life, what is frightening about the current moment we are living through if that the pace of extinctions has accelerated because of our activities. Even the most seemingly insignificant species plays a vital role in an ecosystem. Removing one species can lead to trouble for others. This is especially true in a fragile environment like the Western Arctic.
The World Wildlife Federation says 50% of the planet’s wildlife has been lost in the last four decades. This is primarily because of habitat loss due to economic activities expanding into former wild spaces. Without room to move, raise their young, and grow, wild animals simply have nowhere to go—they get pushed up against limits that compress their ability to survive. The Center for American progress notes that “every two and a half minutes the American West loses a football field worth of natural area to human development.” As so much of what remains gets developed, wide, open landscapes like the western Arctic are vital habitat for much of what remains for us to preserve. All forms of animal life are represented here and also at risk: creatures of the sea, land, and sky use the western Arctic landscape to migrate, raise the next generations, and spread back into the world as the seasons move. There are also implications for those humans living more in tune with the land than industrial civilization—if the creatures they rely on for sustenance disappear, so do these ancient cultures, which have lived and thrived here alongside the animals for thousands of years.
Many of the Arctic’s most famous animals are endangered, which means that they are species facing imminent extinction if the course of their population declines do not reverse. As particularly charismatic megafauna, polar bears get the majority of attention. Listed as endangered in 2008, they are central to the region, occupying the Western Arctic for perhaps 1 million years. Melting sea ice makes it harder for polar bears to hunt. Many swim twice as far now as they once did, and die of starvation or drowning, almost unheard of in the past. Though in trouble in some parts of its range, the grizzly bear, the most likely cousin to the polar bear, was listed as an animal of special concern in 1991 but is not endangered across its Arctic range at this time, though habitat destruction may send it into further decline. The Teshekpuk Caribou Herd is endangered across its range, with significant population declines in recent years. Corresponding with that decline is the Arctic Wolf, which is endangered as well. These animals are iconic of what the Western Arctic is and must be preserved if the land is to live to its full potential.
Not only land animals face challenges, however. Western Arctic sea creatures are in trouble across multiple species. The bowhead whale was listed as endangered in 1986 and still carries that status. The stunning beluga whale, listed as endangered in 2008, uses the Kasegaluk Lagoon in the long Arctic summers to birth and raise its young. Perhaps 3,500 belugas—touching near the lower limit theoretically needed to maintain genetic diversity—spend the summer with the newborns, calving and molting until they make the winter migration south. The Pacific walrus uses the Western Arctic for travel, and calving and hunting purposes, as well, and is in trouble. The loss of polar ice will ultimately lead to declines in walrus just like the polar bear. On the non-mammalian sea life side, several species of Western Arctic fish are in very rapid decline, including but not limited to the Bering wolfish, Northern wolfish, and the Blackline prickleback.
Wild animals of the Western Arctic face many threats, the most obvious being the multiple emerging issues from climate change, such as erosion of coastal areas from rising waters, which is even beginning to affect permafrost. In the warming water, the ice thins and melts sooner than ever, opening opportunities for increased shipping, which degrades water quality for spawning sea animals and poses greater risks for injured animals, shipwrecks, and spills. The pressures of globalization place more stress on fisheries in the area, some of which already suffered from poor or improper management. Multiple types of mining have been proposed for the Western Arctic, all of which carry with them environmental and habitat threats. Up until recently oil and gas development has been more or less kept out of the region, but those operations are encroaching on formerly pristine habitats, as well. Another threat rarely considered is the introduction of non-native species, which dilutes the wild genetic pool. Species not native to the region could further negatively impact animals that are already endangered.
We still have time to correct the imbalances our economic activities have caused. The Western Arctic, with all its amazing creatures and open spaces, could serve as the wake up call we need to reestablish a new equilibrium with our world, rewilding our sense of place here to include all the life with whom we share the world. Savings what is left of the wild may ultimately be the saving of ourselves.
The Cautionary Tale of Prudhoe Bay
Prudhoe Bay, or Sagavanirktok in Inupiaq, sits far up Alaska’s North Slope, at the northernmost terminus of the continent-spanning Pan-American Highway. The Bay was named in 1826 by Sir John Franklin, in honor of a classmate of his, Captain Algernon Percy, Baron Prudhoe. Possibly Sir John Franklin would hardly know Prudhoe today. The body of water that in his time would have been teeming with fish, its land boundary rich with a diverse array of wildlife, now stands testament to the industrialization of our most wild places. Even in a place as seemingly remote as the Western Arctic, the hands of humankind make their presence known. The Prudhoe Bay industrial complex is America’s largest oil field, covering over 600 square miles. Dropping this oil goliath in one of our most pristine wild spaces has had some deleterious effects.
The sprawling oil field, which grows every year, usually in winter when it’s easier to build in the challenging terrain, creates problems for the environment at all levels. Various forms of infrastructure cover thousands of acres of the North Slope with walls, gravel roads, gravel pads, air strips to fly in workers, corporate executives, and visitors, and multiple equipment storage sites. During the period of 1996 – 2004, the industry averaged 500 oil and toxic chemical spills every year. The worst of those occurred in 2006 when a corroded British Petroleum pipeline ruptured, leaking 267,000 gallons into the fragile ecosystem. Recovery of such spills in the Arctic is challenging and takes longer for several reasons: crude oil is extremely difficult to clean up, the average temperature is much colder than other oil development sites around the world, and Arctic plants grow at a slower rate, making them more vulnerable to accidents. The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation notes over 100 sites of contamination caused by the multiple companies that work the area. Pollution emissions from the oil field have been detected as far as Barrow, Alaska, more than 200 miles away. A major spill or accident in this area that got into coastal waters could have devastating effects on waterfowl, ringed seals, bowhead whales, and polar bears, as well as local fisheries. As shown by the history of most fossil fuel development, the question of a major spill stands much less an if than a when.
As always, wildlife take the brunt of the impact. Habitat loss stands as the primary concern for the North Slope’s wild denizens. As the industrialization of the western Arctic grows, critical habitat for a wide variety of species dwindles. The North Slope is home and vital breeding and hunting grounds for some of Alaska’s iconic animals: Arctic fox, grizzly bears, caribou, ravens, geese, and less frequent but important animals like polar bears, red foxes, musk oxen, and Arctic hares. Not just wild animals of the land have been affected—those of the sea and rivers have been, as well. At least 39 species of North Slope fish call the area home, including multiple species of whitefish, char, and Pacific salmon. Warming seas change the range and seasonal cycles of these fish, forcing some of them to swim for deep, cool waters, while others simply move northward. This warming affects whales, seals, walrus, polar bears, and seabirds who feed on the bounty of fish in the Bay.
The sprawling industrial complex also affects subsistence hunters in the area. Whereas the development used to be roughly 60 miles from the village of Nuiqsut, now it comes as close as four miles. If this pace continues the oil fields will eventually engulf the village or at the very least surround it. Falling caribou numbers whose traditional migration routes have been eliminated or interrupted by oil field development affects human hunters, as well. In the village of Nuiqsut, 81% of the residents participate in the subsistence lifestyle. Caribou are essential to their survival, as are bowhead whales. As the water warms and fish move looking for cooler waters in which to thrive, the same may one day occur with the bowhead whale. Subsistence cultures have built their existence around these animals since time out of mind, at least as long as 8,000 years in some parts of Alaska. In indigenous cultures, the land, people, and animals form one symbiotic whole entity—none can survive without the other. As what is left of the western Arctic and North Slope’s wilderness is slowly whittled away by our world’s fossil fuel addiction, we may well witness the end of cultures that have existed in balance with their environments for longer than humankind has known how to write.
Protecting what remains of the North Slope and National Petroleum Reserve – Alaska as wilderness would serve multiple purposes. It would protect the wild creatures that still live in this area and allow conservation efforts to move forward to let them remain wild and free. It would allow restoration work to go forward in areas that need revitalization. The traditional way of life of indigenous people would be protected and continue to be an example of how to live in balance on the land for the long term, rather than just a successful business quarter. More people might hear of this special place, the largest open wilderness in the United States, and wish to visit, to seek and explore what it holds for them. We might also consider the true costs of our dependence upon fossil fuels, and consider making the necessary societal changes to bring forth the energy alternatives we need so we do not have to sacrifice pristine parts of our natural world in order to power our society. Wilderness would also allow natural systems to take over, restore balance, and protect everything that calls the North Slope home from our human frailties. The cautionary example of Prudhoe Bay’s development should serve as a vivid example of why we should protect these places now, while we still have time.
The Western Arctic contains a dazzling array of features that make it a unique part of the United States. One of those is the practice of subsistence hunting and fishing. Outside of Alaska, most Americans know little about living off the land. Before the arrival of Euro-Americans in 1741, all indigenous Alaskans engaged in subsistence lifestyles, with few permanent settlements. These early tribal peoples moved through the landscape, following game and the seasons, living through times of plenty and times of hardship. The movement into settled communities happened very recently, the product of colonization. Yet even though most indigenous Alaskans now live in villages, roughly 95% of Iñupiat—indigenous Alaskans who live in the more remote and typically less developed northern areas of the state from the Bering Sea to western Canada—still practice subsistence hunting and fishing.
Subsistence activities have a legal definition: traditional usage of wild, renewable animal resources for personal, family, or community consumption for transportation, food, tools, fuel, and/or shelter. The federal government took over subsistence hunting and fishing from the state of Alaska in 1990, which complicates some rules on who can and cannot hunt and fish for subsistence purposes. In the State of Alaska’s 1978 Subsistence Bill the rights of most indigenous Alaskans to hunt and fish for purposes of survival were protected. Yet beyond the legal definitions and rights, subsistence hunting and fishing are an integral part of Iñupiat identity. Iñupiat live by a system of twelve core values, essential especially to those who live off the land and its bounty. Two of the twelve highlight following hunting traditions so each hunt will be successful, as well as a greater respect for nature, because this is home for animals and humans, and without a healthy respect for one another and the land, none will prosper.
The North Slope village of Nuiqsut is an excellent example of subsistence hunting and fishing tradition. Located about 30 miles from the Beaufort Sea on Nechelik channel of the Colville River Delta, the village was founded on a spot known traditionally as an Iñupiat gathering and trading ground. It is home to about 415 people. Like all North Slope villages, Nuiqsut’s economy is based on hunting, fishing, and whaling. The village has an arctic climate; temperatures can be extreme, from lows of -56 to highs of 78 degrees. A diverse array of waterways fill the area: swamps, ponds, streams, crossing alluvial and frozen clays, gravel, and permafrost that can get as deep as 100 feet. 81% of Nuiqsut households participate in the local subsistence economy. Hunting and fishing are critical activities for indigenous Alaskans’ survival, especially on the North Slope. A single statistic can stand as a perfect example of how vital the subsistence economy remains even today: in a recent survey, of 259 harvest instances in Nuiqsut, 226 were shared with others. Such sharing stands as a vital matter of culture for indigenous Alaskans and is another of the twelve core values. In December 2015, for example, the people of Nuiqsut sent a plane full of caribou and fish to the village of Anaktuvuk Pass who had had a poor hunting season. Stories like this are not uncommon—they are the norm in a place where people must emphasize community–human and nonhuman–to survive.
Subsistence activities occur from January to December. The most consistent occupation is fishing, practiced throughout the year. Primary seafood staples here are whitefish, burbot, Arctic cisco, Arctic char (a relative of the salmon and seen increasingly on menus in the lower 48 and other places), and graylings. Caribou can be found all through the year as well, though there are occasional seasonal fluctuations. Moose are a primary staple, though their season generally occurs in late summer and early fall, with August a particularly good month as the lower water levels make traveling easier for hunters. Other animals hunted during the year are various species of landed birds and waterfowl, polar bears, and seals.
Perhaps the most seasonal and most challenging animal for Nuiqsut hunters would be the bowhead whale, important because it is rich in vitamins A and C. Harvest generally occurs in September during the bowheads’ annual migration, the closest time the mammals swim near land, making pursuit moderately easier. Hunting bowhead whales takes strength and skill. Most hunters use umiaks, boats constructed from driftwood or whale bones, over which walrus or seal skin sleeves are stretched. These boats can be up to 30’ long. Some hunters use modern aluminum boats, but tradition holds that bowheads are sensitive to the noise of the metal so most like to use traditional umiaks. The primary modern modification most whale hunters have made to umiaks is exchanging metal bolts and screws for the various oils they used to bind skins to the base structure, but in general the umiak itself remains similar to the boat it has always been.
Challenges do exist to this borderline society and others like it. Though Nuiqsut sits far enough inland not to be immediately affected, rising water levels due to climate change have had impacts on some indigenous subsistence communities. The primary danger to Nuiqsut remains the expanded petroleum development from North Slope producers. Hunters have already had to shift harvest activities west as fossil fuel growth encroaches on Nuiqsut’s eastern side. Fear exists that caribou may one day no longer migrate into the area, removing an essential feature of Iñupiat life. Another large concern of the village is the expanded business of sport hunters moving into the area. Nuiqsut hopes buffer zones will be established to protect subsistence areas and users from the impacts of sport hunters.
Many Iñupiat villages have been occupied for as long as 10,000 years. Caribou have been dated in Alaska as far back as 28,000 years ago. People who can live in and preserve a landscape over such time deserve to continue and pass on that legacy to the next generation. They could shine as an example to the lower 48 of how all Americans might better treat our shared environment.