Habitat For Sale in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska

It may not sound like it, but the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska is teeming with wildlife. Now, that wildlife is in danger of losing crucial habitat as the Bureau of Land Management determines how much of the reserve should be made available for oil and gas leases.

| July/August 2012

  • Yellow Billed Loon
    The yellow-billed loon is one of many varieties of birds that use the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska as a crucial breeding ground.

  • Yellow Billed Loon

Mention Arctic wildlife and most people imagine an area on the eastern end of Alaska’s North Slope: the beleaguered Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But to the west of Prudhoe Bay there’s an additional 23 million acres of unsung wilderness: the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, or NPR-A. It’s even larger than the Arctic refuge, and teeming with wildlife.

Though the reserve’s name makes it sound like a giant oil tank waiting to be tapped, it holds much more. This western Arctic wilderness, the largest federal holding in the United States—the reserve is the size of Indiana—is home to hundreds of thousands of caribou; grizzlies, and wolves in numbers long ago erased from the Lower 48; and skeins of birds. Now and then a surreptitious wolverine, too lanky and long-legged to be a bear, appears in the low rays of the midnight sun. From the river bluffs hundreds of falcons and eagles take wing. And on the reserve’s fringes, where it slips under the Beaufort Sea to the north and the Chukchi Sea to the west, it is refuge to seals and birthing belugas and the terrestrial domain of polar bears. A bleak and empty land suited only for oil development? No way.

Thirty-five years ago Congress mandated that “maximum protection” for the reserve’s fish, wildlife, and other natural “surface values” be balanced against any energy exploration and development. The National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska was even considered for national wildlife refuge status. The 1976 act further authorized the Interior Secretary to establish “special area” protections for regions of particular importance to wildlife, specifically Teshekpuk Lake and the Utukok Uplands, for their rich waterfowl and caribou habitats. The Colville River and Kasegaluk Lagoon followed later for their own superlative and unique habitats.

But that “maximum protection” has never been realized. Under both Democratic and Republican administrations since Jimmy Carter, the reserve’s wildlife has enjoyed only a series of localized and temporary protections.

The Reagan years saw the NPR-A’s first oil lease sales. The George W. Bush administration sold the most; in 2004 alone Bush sold leases covering roughly 1.4 million acres and nearly blanketing the primary concentration of the reserve’s yellow-billed loon breeding grounds. Two years later Bush attempted to lease the most critical and irreplaceable habitat around Teshekpuk Lake—in fact, everything but the lake bed itself. Audubon Alaska and five other conservation groups sued to prevent the leases—and won. The effect of the court ruling was to return the environmental analysis back to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which announced in 2008 that it would defer leasing the most sensitive goose-molting wetlands around Teshekpuk Lake until 2018.

The business of selling oil leases took a hit recently when the U.S. Geological Survey reduced its estimate of how much crude oil could be pumped from the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska by more than 90 percent—from 10.6 billion barrels to 896 million (500 million at current market prices). As a result, oil companies gave up many of their leases, including most of those beneath the yellow-bills’ primary breeding grounds.

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