Protecting Home for Wildlife in the Arctic

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the largest, wildest and most pristine refuge in the entire National Wildlife Refuge System.

Porcupine caribou herd on the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge. Photo Credit: USFWS
It harbors many wildlife species, especially during the short summer months, thanks to a diversity of habitats including tundra, rivers, lakes and ponds, coastal lagoons, and barrier islands of the Coastal Plain, as well as the foothills, mountains and forests of the Brooks Range. Coinciding with NWF’s newly released Arctic Refuge Report, let’s take a look at a few of the wildlife species found in the Arctic, whose home is under threat of gas and oil development.

Drilling for oil will ruin caribou habitat. Photo donated by National Wildlife Photo Contest entrant Jonathan Burket


The Arctic Refuge is well-known for caribou. The Coastal Plain is especially important for the Porcupine Caribou Herd, which numbered nearly 200,000 caribou in 2013. This caribou herd has the longest migration of any terrestrial mammal in North America, nearly 800 miles annually.

The Coastal Plain is a particularly important place for caribou. It serves as an ideal area for calving and post-calving in June, as well as a refuge from hordes of insects. For the winter, the Porcupine Caribou Herd migrates primarily to the boreal forests on the south side of the Brooks Range within the Arctic Refuge, and to the northern Yukon and the Northwest Territories of Canada, which provide lichen for winter survival.


The Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge harbors close to 30 species of waterfowl, loons and grebes. The cackling goose, long-tailed duck, northern pintail, Pacific loon and tundra swan are common breeders here.

Snow geese flock to the Coastal Plain for resources. Photo donated by National Wildlife Photo Contest entrant Nancy Bennett
Particularly important for waterfowl is the Canning River delta at the western end of the Coastal Plain. It is the largest river on the Coastal Plain and has the largest delta and wetlands in the entire Arctic Refuge. Loons and tundra swans breed on the delta in this area. It also supports migrant waterfowl that need to fatten up for their long and arduous migration.

Brant, sometimes called the “sea goose,” migrate from their hatching site on the Coastal Plain around Alaska’s entire continental coast and southward to where they spend the winter along the Pacific Coast of western states. Incredibly, tundra swans annually fly four thousand miles from the Refuge across the continent to Chesapeake Bay and nearby areas for the winter.


The Coastal Plain is visited by about 26 species of shorebirds. The U.S. Shorebird Conservation Plan lists seven of these species as highly imperiled.

Semipalmated sandpiper
A variety of birds such as semipalmated sandpipers nest in the Arctic tundra. Photo by Tim Bowman, USFWS
Many shorebirds inhabit the Coastal Plain’s treeless habitats during the short summer. They find the wet tundra and shallow waters atop the permafrost to be rich sources of the invertebrates upon which they depend for nutrition, laying their eggs and raising their young.

In August, large numbers of shorebirds gather on the Coastal Plain, especially near the coast and on tidal wetlands, to build up fat reserves for their long-distance migrations to many parts of the world.

Polar Bears

Alaska’s northern coast is the most important area in the United States for denning polar bears where they birth and nurse cubs. The habitat required for suitable dens of ice and snow is widely distributed across the entire Coastal Plain in the Arctic Refuge.

polar bear
Polar bears are negatively impacted by the effects of climate change. Photo donated by National Wildlife Photo Contest entrant Steve Perry
The decline of Arctic sea ice due to climate change is negatively impacting polar bears and their habitat. Land-based denning sites have become increasingly important as Arctic ice melts. Polar bears are denning more along Alaska’s northern coast due to the decreased availability of sea ice.

Declining Arctic ice also affects the availability of ringed seals, the polar bear’s primary prey. Ringed seals seldom come on land, so polar bears can only catch them on the disappearing Arctic ice. (In 2015, the maximum winter sea ice area was the lowest since satellites began monitoring.)

polar bear
Oil drilling in the Arctic Refuge will further decrease the amount of sea ice which polar bears rely on for survival. Photo donated by National Wildlife Photo Contest entrant Chase Dekker
Exploration, development, and use of the potential oil and gas from the Coastal Plain would directly impact polar bears, caribou, birds and other wildlife through habitat impacts and indirectly as the carbon resources are used and CO2 is emitted into the atmosphere, further accelerating ice melt. Already, the oil and gas industry in Alaska is the single largest source in the state of greenhouse gas emissions.

Take ActionProtect the Arctic Refuge, especially the significant Coastal Plain, from onshore drilling.