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.