The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a wilderness battleground on climate change, and a lot of mamas – mama animals, that is – are under siege.
The Refuge is a place of spectacular beauty, a sort of huge biological cradle that supports many animals we know and love, including mammals, birds, fish, whales, sea lions, and seals. Millions of creatures are born there every spring and summer, then stay there until they’ve built up the strength and endurance they need to migrate south as fall and then the cold winter arrive.
Given how important it is to the survival of so many species, the Refuge should be safe and secure. But it’s not. Oil and gas development are rampant across other areas of Alaska (Tweet this), and the industry is using all of its clout to try to open the Refuge to development, too.
If that happens, says Defenders of Wildlife, “The wilderness and habitat values would be forever destroyed by a steel spider’s web of hundreds of miles of pipelines…along with airstrips, gravel mines, and other support facilities.”
Plus, burning the oil that would be extracted from the Refuge would continue to fuel climate change globally as well as in the Arctic, where its damaging effects are already being felt. “The greatest increases in temperature due to climate change have been in polar areas of the world,” reports the National Wildlife Federation, “with temperatures rising nearly twice as fast in the Arctic as in the rest of the world.”
Alaska Wilderness League and a broad coalition of native organizations, scientific institutes, outdoor enthusiasts, and environmental groups is encouraging President Obama to afford the Refuge the strongest possible protection, protection that would keep the region permanently off limits to oil and gas development. One way they’re doing that is by raising awareness of the threats the Refuge’s mamas already face. Here are 5 mama animals that are particularly in danger.
Meet the Mamas That Need Your Help!
Polar Bears – Polar bears den onshore but travel across ice to hunt for food. In their dens on land, mama bears give birth and raise their cubs through the winter. Oil-related activities like seismic testing, aircraft and vehicle noise, even the presence of people nearby, can disorient a mother bear and cause her to abandon her den and her cubs. Melting sea ice is an even more pressing threat. The lack of ice, and the inability of melting ice to support a bear’s weight, can make it hard for the bear to hunt and eat, and without putting on enough body weight, the bears can’t nurse their cubs. As a result of these threats, the polar bear has been listed as a “threatened species” under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
Caribou – The Refuge’s coastal plain is the principal calving ground for the famous Porcupine Caribou herd. Every spring, these relatives of reindeer, moose and deer migrate north from Canada and more southerly parts of Alaska to the Coastal Plain in the longest land migration route of any land mammal on earth. The caribou have evolved to tolerate snow and cold temperatures, and to eat the lichen they find along the way. But climate change has caused ice storms to glaze over the tundra, making it difficult for the caribou to get the footing they need to move. A warmer, drier climate is drying out the forests where the caribou live in winter, making it more susceptible to fire. And fire can incinerate the lichen that the caribou exist on. No food, no babies.
Muskoxen – Unlike the caribou or migrating birds, muskoxen live on the coastal plain of the Refuge year round. They are uniquely adapted to survive the frigid winter. But any change to their environment can threaten their existence by leading them to produce fewer offspring. The species most vulnerable to climate change in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge are the ones, like polar bears and muskoxen, that stay there all year long. Like the caribou, muskoxen find it difficult to walk on ice instead of snowy tundra and depend on lichen that could be destroyed by fire. Muskoxen are also vulnerable to parasites that thrive as temperatures heat up. With only around 300 of these animals left in the Refuge as it is, they have very little “wiggle” room to adapt to a climate changed world.
Arctic Fox – Is this the cutest animal in the Arctic? It is among the most threatened. Its acute hearing helps it find the small rodents it eats when they’re hiding under the snow. But noisy oil and gas development can interfere with the fox’s hunt. Unlike the caribou and the polar bear, which cross thousands of miles of terrain, fox habitat is confined to a narrow strip of tundra bordered by the ocean, so if that strip shrinks it can put pressure on the fox to survive. In addition to becoming susceptible to more climate-related diseases, the Arctic Fox is also increasingly doing battle with larger red foxes, which are migrating into their territory as warming temperatures increase their range.
Tundra Swan – You may have seen this majestic bird in the winter if you live along the Atlantic Coast, the Great Lakes, and the far west, and never given its huge range a second thought. But climate change is forcing birdwatchers everywhere to feel protective of the tundra swan. It actually breeds in the far north, then flies south for the winter. The Audubon Society projects that due to climate change, the tundra swan could lose 61 percent of its winter range by 2080, while its summer range shrinks, as well, “raising questions about how this migratory bird will adjust to the disruption in both season.”
What Can You Do?
Alaska Wilderness League is petitioning President Obama to stop oil drilling in the Arctic Refuge. You can learn more HERE.
Don’t stop there. Encourage your member of Congress to keep the Refuge off limits to oil drilling, too.
And of course, do your part to use less oil yourself by driving a fuel efficient vehicle, driving less, and reducing the amount of energy you use to heat and cool your home.
Remember, mama animals in the Arctic need your help. But every step you take will protect your own little cubs at home, too.