Protecting the World’s Great Bird Nursery

By Steve Zack

In the last few weeks the tundra swans have abandoned the wetlands near my Oregon home. The cackling geese flew off right behind them. These birds and millions of others from around the world left for the Arctic’s greatest nursery – a vast wetland complex surrounding Alaska’s Teshekpuk Lake. They have done so for millennia. For a decade I have followed them, chronicling the importance of that place and its short but productive summers to migratory birds from every continent and every ocean.

The wetlands around Teshekpuk sit in the heart of the United States’ largest piece of public land, the National Petroleum Reserve – Alaska (NPR-A). Annual migrations to the reserve proceed predictably, but this year is different. Decisions by the federal government concerning the NPR-A’s management future (where energy development will occur and whether wildlife is protected) could have a great impact on both migratory birds and other Arctic wildlife, including polar bear, Arctic fox, and great herds of caribou.

Arctic Fox Pups - Steve Zack

Originally one of four Naval Petroleum Reserves, the NPR-A encompasses 23.5 million acres, including most of western Arctic Alaska. Handed over to the Department of Interior and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in the 1970s, the NPR-A was also recognized by Congress for its exceptional wildlife values. At that time, the Interior department created so-called Special Areas to be given “maximal protection” when balancing energy activities. Teshekpuk Lake was one such area.

In a decade of engagement in Arctic Alaska, WCS conservation scientists and other wildlife biologists have revealed just how unique the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area truly is. Of the estimated six million shorebirds that nest in the NPR-A, 10 percent do so around Teshekpuk, making it a critical destination for these quintessential long-distance migrants. In the fall, many thousands of geese from as far away as Siberia undergo their vulnerable flightless molt along large lakes northeast of Teshekpuk. Hunters in the lower-48 as well as nearby Inupiat Eskimos depend on the waterfowl that breed there.

Long-Tailed Jaeger - Steve Zack

Lying adjacent to the Prudhoe Bay oilfields at the eastern edge of the NPR-A, Teshekpuk has survived a decade of development plans by the BLM, many of which failed due to public concern over local wildlife and inadequate environmental impact assessments. Two years ago, a revised USGS assessment of oil reserves in the NPR-A indicated that only 10 percent of what was believed there actually exists. A great deal of the deposits once considered oil-bearing turned out to be gas-bearing, and most of the remaining oil that does exist is near Teshekpuk Lake.

So in this decade of exploration of both of wildlife and energy in western Arctic Alaska, our understanding of national and international wildlife resources has greatly increased while estimated oil reserves have considerably diminished. The period for comment on four different management alternatives for the NPR-A that are now being considered by the BLM ends on June 15. Of the four, one effectively balances wildlife conservation with energy development.

“Alternative B,” as this option is called, moves forward on development of roughly 50 percent of the NPR-A while protecting the wildlife-rich area around Teshekpuk Lake and the caribou migration corridor further west in the Utukok Uplands.  It is a plan worthy of the public support that balances our energy needs with the conservation of our irreplaceable wildlife resources.

Long-Billed Dowitcher - Steve Zack

Some wonder why we should protect a wetland area we may never see. The fact is that we feel the impact of the Teshekpuk wetland system all around us. That vital landscape sustains a great deal of the migratory bird species we find across the continental United States. Indeed, wildlife lovers throughout the globe accept that during Teshekpuk’s short nesting season, “their” birds become the Arctic’s birds. If we are to keep our birds coming back, it is essential that energy extraction in the NPR-A does not disrupt this exquisitely-timed process.

 To voice your opinion to the BLM, go to

Steve Zack, a wildlife biologist, is Coordinator of Bird Conservation for the Wildlife Conservation Society


Caribou - Steve Zack



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