Alaska’s Western Arctic is arguably the wildest, most remote land area in the United States today. Alaska’s North Slope Borough is similar in size to the State of California, yet has less than 10,000 residents. The area boasts extraordinary wildlife and is the home of Alaska Native people who’ve been present in the area for thousands of years. The coastal plain is one of the largest wetland complexes in the circumpolar Arctic, attracting globally significant abundance of waterfowl, shorebirds, and raptors, earning the name “America’s Bird Basket”. Birds from the Western Arctic disperse along all four major flyways of the United States, as well as to Asia and beyond. A cohort of iconic Arctic mammals gather here, including caribou, muskoxen, and polar bears. This is also an area of major oil, gas, and coal resources. Central to the region is the 23-million acre National Petroleum Reserve - Alaska (NPRA).
In July 2016, Audubon Alaska completed a long-term effort to integrate the best available science into a series of maps highlighting key resources within Alaska's Western Arctic. The resulting publication, the Ecological Atlas of Alaska's Western Arctic (published in July 2016), helps the reader explore the landscape and better understand the overlap of wildlife, people, and development to inform conservation and management.
Download a PDF copy of the atlas here or stop by our office to pick a hard copy of your own.
In the process of understanding the Western Arctic, eight main areas located in the National Petroleum Reserve - Alaska showcase unique values. These areas are briefly described below.
The Teshekpuk Lake region is a globally significant Important Bird Area for its very high density of many bird species of concern, such as spectacled, Steller’s, and king eiders; yellow-billed and red-throated loons; and black brant. The Teshekpuk Caribou Herd migrates to this area each year to calve their young and forage on abundant sedges. Geese gather in the tens of thousands in the fall to molt north of Teshekpuk Lake. A several-mile-wide coastal band is designated critical habitat for denning polar bears.
COLVILLE RIVER AND DELTA
The Colville River begins at headwaters in the Brooks Range and ends over 300 miles downstream in a massive alluvial fan and delta plain fingering out toward the Beaufort Sea. The river itself marks an invisible but important boundary: a transition from the developed State of Alaska oil production lands to the federal NPRA which is just beginning to see its first oil production footprint. Known for its high density of raptors, the exposed Lower Cretaceous cliff banks of the Colville are tenanted by nesting peregrine falcons, golden eagles, rough-legged hawks, and gyrfalcons. The delta is a globally recognized Important Bird Area where a world-class gathering of shorebirds and waterfowl raise their chicks. Black brant, Steller’s eiders, stilt sandpipers, and over 60 other species breed there. Arctic foxes, musk oxen, wolves, caribou, and the occasional land-locked polar bear wander through the Delta.
UTUKOK RIVER UPLANDS
These higher elevation foothills and uplands are the headwaters for the Utukok River as well as the Meade and Colville rivers. This excellent wolverine habitat has one of the highest densities of this hard-to-find species anywhere, as well as high densities of caribou, wolves, and grizzly bears. The uplands are the calving grounds of the Western Arctic Caribou Herd—the largest herd in Alaska. The area is also inhabited by moose, raptors, and anadromous fish.
DEASE INLET & MEADE RIVER
The area around Dease Inlet and Meade River is characterized by thousands of small thaw lakes, which are important habitat for nesting loons, waterfowl, and shorebirds. The inlet itself is home to ice seals, particularly ringed and spotted seals. The barrier islands are important for polar bears and nesting seaducks. The area also provides important insect relief habitat for the TCH. This are includes the densest Yellow-billed Loon nesting area in Alaska.
Kasegaluk Lagoon is a highly productive shallow coastal lagoon and barrier island system spanning 125 miles of the Chukchi Sea coast. This is a very important area for coastal marine mammals and nesting, staging, and migrating waterbirds. Belugas whales calve and molt in the lagoon, and up to 35,000 walrus haul out near Point Lay.
The Ikpikpuk and its tributary, the Titaluk River, host a high density of nesting Peregrine Falcons. The Ikpikpuk River is an anadromous fish stream and also has been identified as providing significant shorebird habitat. The delta of the Ikpikpuk is an important nesting area for snow geese.
Peard Bay and the surrounding wetland complex is a concentration area for three species of ice seals, polar bears, and various seaducks—particularly eiders. The habitat adjacent to Peard Bay is characterized by thousands of small thaw lakes, which provide important habitat for nesting loons, waterfowl, and shorebirds.
DELONG MOUNTAINS & ARCTIC FOOTHILLS
The DeLong Mountains & Arctic Foothills are heavily used by migrating caribou, grizzly bears, wolves, and wolverines. This area adjoins the Noatak National Preserve and the Gates of the Arctic National Park, and is an important component for maintaining an undeveloped ecological linkage area or corridor from interior Alaska, across the Brooks Range, to the Arctic Coastal Plain.