Protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of the largest intact ecosystems in the world. With its unique wildlife, unspoiled wilderness, cultural heritage and diverse habitats, it is the crown jewel of the Refuge System and vital to protecting America’s wildlife. But it faces a number of threats, most notably those posed by oil and gas drilling.

A Wilderness for All Time

Polar Bear, Arctic NWR, AK, FWS
Polar bear prowling the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge | USFWS

Recently, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) made such a recommendation as part of a draft management plan for the refuge. This plan, known as a Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP), will guide actions on the refuge for the next 15 years. NWRA applauds FWS’s inclusion of the wilderness recommendation to Congress, but your voice is urgently needed to bolster this recommendation.

On November 13, 2013, Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) introduced legislation (S. 1695) to permanently protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) 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 and its companion in the House were to pass and become law, the coastal plain of the Arctic NWR would be permanently protected and drilling for oil and gas – an ongoing debate for over three decades – would be off the table for good.


You can make a difference for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge – Take Action Today!

You comments in support of wilderness designation for the refuge’s coastal plain will make a difference in the debate!

It’s up to citizens who care about the future of America’s last remaining wilderness areas and the remarkable wildlife they protect to ensure that the Arctic remains an unspoiled refuge for generations to come.


Established as the Arctic National Wildlife Range in 1960, the refuge is unique for its mandate to protect wilderness values. The original wildlife range encompassed 8.9 million acres, but its size was expanded to its current 19.6 million acres by President Carter in 1980, and it was renamed the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. At that time, much of the refuge was also designated as wilderness – a federal designation that requires an area to be left in a natural state, undisturbed by human activity. The 1980 legislation also prohibited oil and gas development on the coastal plain in the northeast corner of the refuge along the Beaufort Sea–a habitat vital to polar bears, caribou, wolves and more than 300 other species of animals and birds–but allowed the opportunity for Congress to reverse this action in the future.

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 FWS 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.

Debate Over Oil & Gas Drilling

For 30 years, the Arctic refuge’s coastal plain has been at the center of a heated debate over oil and gas drilling. On one side are those who support expanding our domestic oil production at virtually any cost, and on the other side are those who seek to protect the Arctic refuge’s magnificent wilderness and America’s natural heritage.

We have learned some costly lessons from the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska and the more recent Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico. These disasters 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 if Congress allows oil and gas exploration on the coastal plain.

Those in favor of development often invoke exaggerated and unfounded claims of resulting economic prosperity, exploiting fears about high gas prices. In truth, oil from the refuge would have little effect on oil prices, produce few jobs and provide no long-term energy security. We have nothing to gain and everything to lose from industrializing this exquisite global treasure.

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.


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.

Calls to Open the Arctic to Oil & Gas Resurface

With high gas prices seemingly here to stay, drilling advocates in Congress are calling to open the Arctic refuge’s coastal plain to oil exploration. We need your help to defend this iconic refuge and protect the wildlife and birds that cannot speak for themselves. We can’t drill our way to energy independence –  ruining one of America’s last pristine wilderness areas is not the answer. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of the last intact ecosystems in the world, and we have a responsibility to future generations to protect its integrity.

How You Can Help Protect the Arctic Refuge:

  1. Send a message to your U.S. Representative and U.S. Senators and urge them to protect the Arctic refuge forever; urge them to designate the coastal plain of the refuge as wilderness.
  2. Donate to NWRA today and help us ensure that the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is protected for wildlife and people for generations to come!

Permanent link to this article: