Renowned for its wildlife, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is inhabited by forty-five species of land and marine mammals. It was established in 1960 as a promise to the American people to preserve “wildlife, wilderness, and recreational values.” Vast and remote, this 19.5-million-acre refuge is the size of South Carolina. While 8.9 million acres are designated as wilderness, the 1.5-million-acre coastal plain, the biological heart of the Refuge, does not yet have wilderness designation. Oil drilling has been proposed on the coastal plain.
The Refuge shares a common border with Ivvavik and Vuntut National Parks in Canada, which in combination constitutes one of the largest conservation areas in the world. North to south, the Refuge extends 200 miles—from the Arctic coast, across the tundra plain, over glacier-capped peaks of the Brooks Range, and into the spruce and birch forests of the Yukon basin. The Refuge preserves a continuum of Arctic and sub-Arctic ecozones.
It contains the greatest variety of plant and animal life of any conservation area in the circumpolar north. It is home to thirty-six species of land mammals; nine marine mammal species live along its coast; thirty-six fish species inhabit its rivers and lakes; and 180 species of birds converge here from six continents.
MAP of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has been the homeland to the Gwich’in Athabascan people of interior Alaska and the Inupiat people of the north coast. Both cultures have subsisted on this land for thousands of years. The Gwich’in have respected this land and its animals for millennia, caring for its clean air, clean water, and clean land.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is home to thirty-six species of land mammals; nine marine mammal species live along its coast; thirty-six fish species inhabit its rivers and lakes; and 180 species of birds converge here from six continents.
The 100,000 to 110,000-strong Porcupine caribou herd migrates throughout the Refuge and northwestern Canada. The pregnant females come to the coastal plain to give birth in late May and early June. The annual migration of this herd is the reason the Refuge is sometimes called “America’s Serengeti.” The local Gwich’in people who have depended on the caribou for thousands of years call the caribou birthing place, the coastal plain, “Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit” (The Sacred Place Where Life Begins).
All three species of North American bear (black, grizzly, and polar) range within its borders. The Refuge is the only national conservation area where polar bears regularly den, and it is the most consistently used polar bear land-denning area in Alaska. The pregnant bears dig their dens in November, then give birth to one or two tiny cubs in December or January. The mothers nurse and care for the young inside the den until March or early April at which point they emerge before heading for the sea ice.
The once-endangered muskox, an Ice-Age relic, live year-round on the Refuge coastal plain and give birth to their young from mid-April through mid-May, when the coastal plain is still fully covered in snow.
The Refuge contains North America’s northernmost Dall sheep population. A year-round resident, they have lived in the Refuge since the Pleistocene.
Millions of birds come to the Refuge each year. Their migrations take them to each of the fifty states, and they cross great oceans and follow distant coastlines to reach the lands and waters of six continents. About seventy species of birds nest on the narrow coastal plain.
Each autumn, the coastal plain of the Refuge supports up to 300,000 snow geese, which leave their nesting grounds in Canada and detour here to feed on cotton grass to build fat reserves and gain energy before heading south to their wintering grounds.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a place of wildness, where timeless ecological and evolutionary processes continue in their natural ebb and flow. The mystery of nameless valleys remains alive, where one can experience solitude, self-reliance, exploration, adventure, and challenge. The spirit of wilderness prevails here.
The majestic Brooks Range rises from the coastal plain here only ten to forty miles from the Beaufort Sea. The Refuge includes the four highest peaks and most of the glaciers in the Brooks Range. More than twenty rivers flow through the Refuge, and three are designated as wild: the Sheenjek, Ivishak, and Wind. It contains North America’s two largest and most northerly alpine lakes – Peters and Schrader.
Numerous prominent geological formations, including a range of permafrost and glacial features, are found here. It contains several warm springs, which support plant species unique to the area.
In this land of seasonal extremes, the summer sun remains above the horizon for months; in winter, the dark sky is enlivened by the multicolored aurora borealis.
Compiled with permission from Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Seasons of Life and Land, The Mountaineers Books and United States Fish and Wildlife Service reports.