Alaska's North Slope encompasses an immense and spectacular Arctic ecosystem that provides critical habitat for many species of fish and wildlife. Alaska's Arctic is also the site of a major petroleum industry centered near Prudhoe Bay in the central Arctic. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge stretches east from the oil fields of Prudhoe Bay to the Canadian border. West of Prudhoe Bay lies the 23.5-million-acre National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (Reserve), the single largest block of public land in the United States. It stretches from the Colville River to the east to the Chukchi Sea to the west. This map shows the Special Areas and the wildlife values of the Reserve.
The Reserve was established in 1923 by President Warren Harding as a source of oil for the U.S. Navy. In 1976 Congress transferred management authority from the Navy to the Department of the Interior (DOI) and provided for "maximum protection" of fish, wildlife, and other surface values during any petroleum exploration in the Reserve. In 1980 Congress authorized actual leasing and development but again called for the Secretary of the Interior to mitigate adverse effects on surface resources. Several “Special Areas” have been designated by the DOI since 1977 in recognition of their wildlife and natural values: Teshekpuk Lake, Colville River, Kasegaluk Lagoon, and the Utukok River Uplands.
Alaska’s Western Arctic is a vast landscape that remains largely unchanged in character from the lands inhabited by Inupiat Natives during the last millennia. The wilderness and wildlife values of the Western Arctic rank among the highest on the continent, and the region sustains many species of fish and wildlife that are the foundation for the subsistence culture of the Inupiat Natives who still live in this region today. Several Native communities exist within the boundaries of NPRA, while outside its borders is a combination of state-, federal-, and Native-owned land.
The wetlands around Teshekpuk Lake are perhaps the best-known place in NPRA. The Teshekpuk Wetlands are the most significant goose molting area in the circumpolar Arctic and are used by up to 30 percent of the Brant population in the Pacific Flyway [for more information, download a copy of our "Waterfowl in the Western Arctic" fact sheet (2.5 MB PDF)]. The region is also the major calving area for the 67,000-animal Teshekpuk Lake Caribou Herd. [For more information on geese and caribou in the Teshekpuk Lake area, download a copy of "Wildlife and Oil Development at Teshekpuk Lake" (724 KB, PDF format).
To the south, the Colville River corridor contains one of the world's densest concentrations of nesting raptors, including Peregrine Falcons, Gyrfalcons, Golden Eagles, and Rough-legged Hawks. Farther west, the Utukok Uplands are the primary calving ground for the Western Arctic Caribou Herd, Alaska's largest caribou herd, currently numbering about 490,000 animals. This area is also home to unusually large populations of wolves, wolverine, and grizzly bears.
Offshore of the northwest portions of NPRA are important habitats for beluga whales, walruses, and several species of ice seals. This coastal area also provides habitat and denning sites for polar bears. The polar bear was listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act in 2008. This on-shore habitat could become even more important with rapidly diminishing polar ice conditions. The vast wetlands and lakes on the NPRA coastal plain also provide critical nesting and summering habitat for rare Yellow-billed Loons, threatened Steller's Eiders and Spectacled Eiders, and other water birds.
What Scientists Say About the NPRA
Although oil and gas exploration and leasing in NPRA date back decades, intensive competitive leasing did not begin until the late 1990s.
- In the Northeast Planning Area of NPRA, nearly 1.5 million acres have been leased, though the critical wetlands north and east of Teshekpuk Lake have yet to be leased.
- A lease sale was scheduled for September 2006 for the wetlands north and east of Teshekpuk Lake, but the sale was blocked by a federal district court, which found that cumulative environmental impacts had not been adequately addressed.
- In August 2007 the BLM released a draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) for review and public comment to address the court’s decision; the 2007 SEIS again discussed alternatives for leasing north and east of Teshekpuk Lake.
- In September of 2008, BLM released the final SEIS and Record of Decision, deferring oil and gas leasing in the Teshekpuk Wetlands for at least ten years.
- In the Northwest Planning Area of NPRA, 2.3 million acres have been leased, including western portions of the Teshekpuk Special Area.
- Exploration activities, including seismic work, well drilling, ice and snow road and pad construction, and surface water extraction, have been occurring on Northeast and Northwest leases for the past several years and are expected to increase in the near future.
- BLM completed a management plan for the Colville River Special Area in July 2008. Audubon and others urged BLM to require a 2-mile buffer along the river in order to protect nesting raptors and their foraging habitats. BLM, unfortunately, instituted only a 1-mile buffer.