Protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge | Steve Hillebrand, USFWS
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge | Steve Hillebrand, USFWS

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of the largest intact ecosystems in the world. With its unique wildlife, unspoiled wilderness, cultural heritage that bespeaks its importance to Alaska Natives and diverse habitats for hundreds of species, it is the crown jewel of the National Wildlife Refuge System and one of the most important protected areas on Earth.

Polar Bear with Cub | Steve Torbit USFWS
Polar Bear with Cub | Credit: Steve Torbit USFWS

President Eisenhower set the Arctic Refuge aside in 1960 and to this day, it remains the only national wildlife refuge established “for the purpose of preserving unique wildlife, wilderness, and recreational values.” Since then, Arctic Refuge has continued to be one of our nation’s most pristine and appreciated natural areas. We must ensure it remains a place where wildlife populations continue to thrive.

The 19.6 million acres that comprise the Arctic Refuge are also home to Alaska Natives, including the Inupiat and Gwich’in. The resources of the refuge sustain these populations and protect their indigenous traditions and way of life.


President Eisenhower’s original 1960 designation included 8.9 million acres and was called the Arctic National Wildlife Range. Congress and President Carter expanded it to its current 19.6 million acres in 1980 under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA). Under ANILCA the Range was renamed the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and much of the refuge was designated as wilderness. ANILCA also prohibited oil and gas development on the coastal plain in the northeast corner of the refuge along the Beaufort Sea, but allowed the opportunity for a future act of Congress to allow it.

Wilderness is a federal designation that requires an area to be left in a natural state and has not been significantly modified by human activity.

Species in Focus

The Arctic Refuge coastal plain encompasses approximately 1.2 million acres and serves as the biological heart of the entire refuge. Polar and brown bears, caribou, Dall sheep, wolves and muskox are just a few of the more than 250 animal species that depend on the coastal plain. Millions of birds, representing some 125 species, migrate to the coastal plain to nest, rear their young and feed. The coastal plain is not only one of the most significant onshore polar bear denning habitats in the United States but also the most important habitat for the Porcupine caribou herd.

Polar bear cubs | FWS

Polar bear

In 2008 USFWS listed the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, citing climate change as its primary threat. These powerful bears, which can weigh anywhere from 775 to 1,200 pounds, hunt for seals on drifting pack ice. Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is home to the Southern Beaufort Sea population, which consists of 1,500 bears out of an estimated 20,000-25,000 polar bears worldwide. Read more...

Caribou | FWS
Caribou | FWS


The thriving caribou populations in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge consist of the 123,000-member Porcupine Caribou Herd and the 32,000-member Central Arctic Caribou Herd. Although caribou are prevalent in tundra and boreal forests worldwide, their populations have been in decline primarily due to climate change. The coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge is vital habitat for caribous and their calves.

Snowy owl
Snowy owl | Dennis Connell

Snowy owl

Snowy owls are well-adapted for life in the Arctic Circle. Their thick white plumage and heavily feathered talons help them blend in to an icy environment and provide enough warmth to survive the intense cold. They spend most of their time on the ground, where they build and hide their nests with tundra plants and grasses. A nomadic species, they can be found ranging far south of their Arctic tundra home during summer months as they look for prey.

Comprehensive Conservation Plan

In January 2015, President Obama officially recommend to Congress that 12.28 million acres if the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, including the coastal plain, be permanently protected as Wilderness. The announcement came as U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe released a final Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP) recommending wilderness protection for the Arctic Refuge’s coastal plain and other areas as part of a management plan for the refuge. The Service also recommends four rivers – the Atigun, Hulahula, Kongakut and Marsh Fork Canning – for inclusion into the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. The final CCP will guide actions on the refuge for the next 15 years. The Refuge Association applauds the Administration’s decision, and the Service’s inclusion of the wilderness recommendation to Congress.

On January 9, 2015, Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA) introduced the Udall-Eisenhower Arctic Wilderness Act (H.R. 239) to permanently protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge by designating its coastal plain as Wilderness. Designating an area as Wilderness is something that only Congress can do. Wilderness designation is the highest level of protection to land or water in the United States – and indeed, the world. If this legislation were to pass and become law, the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would be permanently protected and drilling for oil and gas – an ongoing debate for over three decades – would be off the table for good.

The Arctic Coastal Plain: Where Wildlife and Oil Do Not Mix

Though comprising only 10 percent of the Arctic Refuge, the coastal plain has been at the center of an ongoing debate over oil and natural gas drilling for more than 30 years. Many have strongly opposed oil and gas drilling because of the impacts to wildlife, land and subsistence hunters while some have pushed for expanded drilling.


Oil and gas drilling in this pristine and fragile ecosystem will have devastating impacts. Experts agree that developing an oil field in the Arctic Refuge coastal plain would inevitably involve:

  • Hundreds of miles of pipelines and roads leading to oil fields, oil pumping plants, power generating stations and airstrips, which would disturb wildlife;
  • Helicopters, cargo planes, dump trucks and bulldozers— the sights and sounds of heavy equipment would be almost constant for long periods.
  • Living quarters, sewage treatment and other infrastructure for hundreds of workers.
  • Chronic spills of oil and other toxic substances onto the fragile tundra.
  • Rivers and streambeds—key habitat for wildlife—stripped of millions of cubic yards of gravel for road, airstrip and drill pad construction.
  • Enormous diversions of fresh water to support drilling at the expense of pristine rivers and wetlands.

Since ANILCA, Congress has considered proposals to drill for oil in the Arctic Refuge but the Administration has threatened to veto the proposal or Congress did not have enough votes.

Disasters such as the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska and the more recent Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico have taught us that there is no safe way to drill for oil and gas in the Arctic Refuge, no way to guarantee wildlife will not be harmed by resource extraction in the refuge and no way to ensure the Arctic Refuge will be protected for future generations.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is world-class ecosystem that should be protected for future generations. Our October 2015 report, issued with National Wildlife Federation, details why we must safeguard this region’s wildlife, vital habitat and indigenous traditions. 

Impacts of drilling in sensitive habitats

Oil drilling anywhere presents a risk of oil spills; in the Arctic the impacts of such spills could be catastrophic. Spills are more dangerous here because the combination of a colder climate, slower plant growth rates and longer animal life spans hinder recovery efforts. Additionally, no technology currently exists for cleaning oil from sea ice in the Arctic waters. Read more...

The Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989 gives some idea of the long-term impacts of a major spill in Alaska. From 1989 to 1997, the population of harbor seals in this area declined by 35 percent, and it continues on a downward spiral today. In 1993 the Pacific herring population crashed due to the harmful impacts of oil on fish reproduction. These are just two of the many species that are still recovering from this devastating spill.

In 1987, well before the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Department of the Interior investigated how drilling on the coastal plain of the Arctic refuge would effect wildlife. This study showed that the Porcupine caribou and muskox populations would be severely impacted, and water supplies would be reduced and tainted. Other animals such as polar bears, shorebirds and walruses would suffer from displacement, increased mortality and slower reproduction rates. This and other studies teach us that oil can cause irrevocable damage to fish and wildlife. 

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