Alaska’s last vast wild place is open for drilling. Will the birds survive?
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Alaska’s last vast wild place is open for drilling. Will the birds survive?

This article was created in partnership with the National Geographic Society.

In late June our floatplane lifted off from Deadhorse, Alaska, at the top of the state, and arrowed west. As it gained altitude the industrial spraddle of the Prudhoe Bay oil field shrank beneath the plane’s pontoons. Soon there was nothing below but land the color of wet cardboard, an earth still waking from its long winter.

About 110 miles to the west, the plane skidded down on a half-frozen lake. We pitched our tents and ringed the camp with an electrified bear fence against curious grizzlies. Then, Martin Robards and Peter Detwiler—a scientist and a senior field technician for the Wildlife Conservation Society, respectively—headed out across the tundra. Robards wore a Remington 870 shotgun slung over his shoulder (bears, again).

The tundra was treeless and stretched until the eye watered. What appeared to be solid land was either as soft as a cheap mattress, or the consistency of pudding. Detwiler wore hip boots; Robards, fishing waders.

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Canada geese and brants swim in the icy waters of a wetland in Qupaluk, on Alaska’s North Slope. They are just offshore of a brant nesting colony, established in the safety of this arctic wetland.

They were looking for birds.

The men were standing on the biggest patch of public real estate you’ve never heard of: the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, or NPR-A. The reserve is the single largest piece of public land in the United States. Every spring, ducks, geese, owls, and shorebirds of every kind—millions of them—descend from all corners of the planet to rest, mingle, mate, lay eggs, and raise chicks, before dispersing once more around the world. For birds, it has been called “Heathrow at the top of the world.” The entire Coastal Plain of Alaska has the densest concentration of birds in the Arctic.

As the Trump administration continues to push for more oil and gas extraction on public lands, the petroleum reserve is on the cusp of profound change. The week’s trip for this two-man research crew was the start of a years-long project to detail precisely what bird life is here and how it uses the place, and to try to guage what such change would mean.

“This is the best of the best, and we really want to document the nuances within that,” Robards said.

The men walked slowly across the tundra, scanning the ground for two bird species they needed to place tags on, pectoral sandpiper and red phalaropes, to better understand their migration patterns. When one of them flushed, they tried to find the nest it had left—a surprisingly hard thing to do, even among sedges that grow only shin high. They located a red phalarope’s nest.

Detwiler set beside it a net that would spring over the nest. He paid out a trigger cord. Then we walked some distance away, laid down on the wet turf…and waited for the bird to return. And waited.

“Welcome to ornithology,” said Robards.

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Scientists attach a satellite tag to a pectoral sandpiper at Qupaluk, which is at the intersection of two major migratory bird flyways.

Eventually the male red phalarope appeared and settled back on the nest. Detwiler pulled the cord. The trap sprang. Running to the nest, he took the bird gently in hand. It was a handsome little creature, with a chunky, rust-colored breast and a bill the yellow of a No. 2 pencil.

The men weighed the bird. They took measurements—of the wings, of the bill. They plucked feathers for analysis. Finally, they wrestled the bird into wearing a tiny “backpack,” a transmitter with a tiny solar panel and antenna. The backpack cost $4,000 and weighed less than a bottle cap. it would talk to a satellite, providing researchers with detailed information about the bird’s migration.

They let the bird go. It waddled off, unsure of itself. Then it flew away.

A brief history

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An oil drilling rig rests on the tundra west of Prudhoe Bay.

President Warren Harding established the petroleum reserve in 1923 as an oil supply for the U.S. Navy, years after native Alaskans first showed Yankee whalers oil seeping from the ground. For decades, however, no commercial drilling happened. In 2015, the first commercial oil development began on native lands in the far east of the reserve, and is continuing on others. The state of Alaska and ConocoPhillips, the state’s largest oil and gas producer, want more land opened to drilling. Some native groups, including those who benefit from drilling money, also want fewer restrictions on the land.

Proponents saw their opening in the Trump administration, which is now retooling the reserve’s Obama-era management plan. That plan had allowed drilling in about half of the reserve but set aside five “special areas” for some protection, in part because of their value to wildlife and subsistence hunting.

“We’re working now with the state of Alaska and the local government, the North Slope Borough, to redevelop an integrated activity plan in the region that will make millions more acres available for leasing,” Joe Balash, the Interior Department’s assistant secretary of land and minerals management, said last year during a speech at the conservative Heartland Institute. (Balash announced a few days ago that he would leave the administration to join a foreign energy company that operates on Alaska’s North Slope.)

Of particular interest to ConocoPhillips are areas of the reserve near Teshekpuk Lake, a massive, shallow lake system in NPR-A’s northeast corner that’s larger than Lake Tahoe. It also happens to be ground zero for migratory birds in the Arctic, which are already being squeezed by other factors, including climate change and loss of habitat in the places they stop elsewhere around the world.

“The last thing we need right now is a new impact hitting them,” said Robards, the regional director for the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Arctic Beringia Program.

Birds under pressure

Out on the tundra, Robards stopped. “Let’s do a point count,” he said. He lifted his binoculars and glassed the horizon. Beside him, Detwiler scribbled down notes.

“Two pomarine jaegers.”

“Two pecs”—pectoral sandpipers—“at 100 meters.”

“Three more pecs. Same place.”

“LaLo”—a Lapland longspur—at, like, 70 meters.”

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An arctic tern surfaces after fishing in the waters of the Qupaluk wetland area. This region is of critical importance to nesting bird habitat.

In five minutes the men had tallied dozens of birds and waterfowl. Even so, Robards sounded almost apologetic. “This is pretty quiet for up here.”

Even as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, to the east, gets more popular attention—Congress in 2017 voted to open the coastal plain there to oil leasing, a hugely controversial move that will likely end up in court—the less-known petroleum reserve is particularly choice ground for birds.

“It is more important, there are more birds, of higher density, in the NPR-A than in the Arctic Refuge,” said Rebecca McGuire, the Arctic Beringia Avian Ecologist for WCS, a nongovernmental group that performs research to inform conservation and management decisions.

The area around Teshekpuk Lake, where we had just landed, is perhaps the most important of all. Though this area covers just 18 percent of the reserve, it is home to more than 40 percent of all the aquatic birds that visit Alaska’s North Slope, government scientists reported in a 2013 study.

The far north is particularly valuable to shorebirds like that red phalarope. For a few months each year, Alaska hosts roughly 30 percent of the world’s 100 million breeding shorebirds, in the highest densities found anywhere. The North Slope alone is home to about six million of them.