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Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Turns 50

By Jordan Schaul Today is the 50th anniversary of the largest, most remote and perhaps, most rustic protected wilderness area in the United States. Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), the most well known refuge in the system, turns 50 on January 6 with celebrations throughout central and south central Alaska. A bull caribou in...

By Jordan Schaul

Today is the 50th anniversary of the largest, most remote and perhaps, most rustic protected wilderness area in the United States.

Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), the most well known refuge in the system, turns 50 on January 6 with celebrations throughout central and south central Alaska.

Moose in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge picture.jpg

A bull caribou in ANWR’s North Slope.

NGS stock photo by George F. Mobley

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced last month that along with “Arctic Sanctuary,” an engaging photo exhibit, and “Wild Legacy,” a captivating stage production, a high-definition video documentary portraying ecological and historical perspectives of the refuge is being shown on separate dates in Homer, Fairbanks, and in Anchorage. See photos from “Arctic Sanctuary” and learn more about “Wild Legacy”.

The hour-long film, “America’s Wildest Refuge,” features wildlife, stunning vistas, and captures opportunities for exploration and discovery inside the refuge. The trailer for the documentary is embedded below.

Alaska Geographic and Artery Industries produced the film, which covers all seasons and includes interviews with the people who are most familiar with the protected wild land.

ANWR is managed by FWS personnel out of Fairbanks, the second largest city in the Frontier State and located in the Interior region of Alaska.

The refuge is located in northeastern Alaska and encompasses 19,286,482 acres (7,804,962 hectares, about the size of South Carolina) of the northern coastal region of the state, of which 8,000,000 acres are designated as a wilderness area.

Three Native American tribes call this place home, which is accessible by foot or boat, although the majority of visitors arrive by aircraft.

Within the refuge at the headwaters of the Sheenjek River lies the most remote location in the United States.

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A butterfly on a tundra rose, or shrubby cinquefoil, flower (Potentilla frutico sa), the Sheenjek River Valley, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska.

NGS stock photo by George F. Mobley

Unique Wildlife, Wilderness, Recreation

The refuge was established on December 6, 1960 for the purposes of preserving “unique wildlife, wilderness, and recreational values.”

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge supports 42 fish species, 37 terrestrial mammal species, eight marine mammal species, and more than 200 migratory and resident bird species in eight ecozones representing both arctic and subarctic ecosystems.

Sheenjek River picture.jpg

NGS stock photo of the Sheenjek River, ANWR, by George F. Mobley

Among the mammals all three species of North American bears live within the refuge, as do lynx, marten, and wolverines. Ungulates including moose, caribou, and Dall sheep make the refuge home. Wolves and musk oxen are also active year round residents.

As the entire protected area sits north of the Arctic Circle just 1,300 miles (2,092 km) south of the North Pole, much of the refuge’s surface is covered with permafrost or frozen soil.

ANWR aerial picture of caribou herd.jpg

An aerial view of a herd of caribou migrating to calving grounds. Kongakut River, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska.

NGS stock photo by George F. Mobley

Ice covers the Beaufort sea to the north for eight months of the year. The pack ice supports seals and polar bears.

Abutting the coast is the flat Arctic tundra with its low laying vegetation–mostly sedges and shrubs. This icy oasis supports musk oxen year-round and serves as a seasonal home for calving caribou in the spring.

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Brooks Range picture.jpg

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Brooks Range, Aichilik River, Alaska.

NGS stock photo by James P. Blair

Farther south, foothills transform into the rugged mountains of Brooks Range and provide foraging grounds for Dall sheep. Brooks Range stretches across Alaska and into Canada’s Yukon Territory for 680 miles (1,100 km).

FWS had tentative plans to air the film in Washington, D.C., today, Monday, December 6– the anniversary of the establishment of the refuge. The showing will be at the Department of the Interior auditorium. In addition to the Fairbanks showing at the Blue Loon on December 6, the film be shown at the Bear Tooth in Anchorage on February 10. More details can be found on the FWS ANWR 50th Anniversary website.




Jordan Schaul is a conservation biologist and a collection curator with the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. He received his PhD in conservation/veterinary preventive medicine from Ohio State University and a master’s degree in zoology. He is a council member (ex officio) of the International Association for Bear Research and Management (IBA), a member and coordinator for education and outreach for the Bear Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, an advisor to the Bear Taxon Advisory Group of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, correspondent editor and captive bear news correspondent for International Bear News, and member of the advisory council of the National Wildlife Humane Society, which promotes high standards for wild carnivore care and welfare among private sanctuaries in North America. He is the creator of the Zoo Peeps brand which hosts a blog for the global zoo and aquarium community and two wildlife conservation oriented radio programs. He enrolled in clinical degree programs in veterinary medicine and has been on leave to pursue interests in animal management/husbandry science and conservation education.


The views expressed in this article are those of Jordan Schaul and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Read more blog posts by Jordan Schaul.

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