As a graduate student in 1956, WCS’s George Schaller was one of the first scientists to survey what is now the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern Alaska. Upon his return, Schallernow a conservation iconpushed the U.S. government to keep the lands he had seen on the WCS-supported Arctic expedition rich with wildlife.

The government listened. This week the refuge celebrates its 50th anniversary—a half century of protection for caribou, polar bears, wolverines, lemmings, and Arctic foxes in a pristine northern landscape that the indigenous Gwich’in people call “the place where life begins.” Gyrfalcons, ptarmigans, and birds from all over the world also fly above and breed within 19-million-acre refuge. 

Yet oil and gas development jeopardizes one stretch of the Arctic Refuge, its coastal plain. When Congress enlarged the refuge in 1980, they placed protections from energy development on most of it. Unfortunately, the 1.5-million-acre coastal plain was left out. WCS now calls for permanent protection of this critical coastal area.

Having been instrumental in the refuge’s creation in 1960, WCS went on to conduct numerous ecological studies in the Alaskan Arctic. Containing some of the most important habitat for wildlife in the refuge, the coastal plain provides essential calving habitat for around 100,000 caribou. These enormous herds migrate across the Brooks Range from nearby Canada. As many as 300,000 snow geese fuel up for their seasonal trips here, too. The birds forage on the plain’s rich cotton grass before they head south.

"We were delighted by the fact that our work had led to the creation of the Arctic National Wildlife Range, and we were naïve enough to believe that protection would be forever," said Schaller. "Instead, the American public has fought for decades to preserve our natural heritage by keeping oil companies from drilling inside the refuge. President Obama would be achieving one of the great acts of social responsibility and patriotism of our time by permanently protecting the refuge's coastal plain and America's greatest wild place."

The concentration of wildlife within the plain’s narrow footprint (40 miles at its widest), leaves little room for development. These lands, coldly dubbed “Area 1002,” hold the highest density of denning polar bears in Arctic Alaska. The bears, already dealing with sea ice reductions from climate change, need these sites to raise their young.

“While WCS is not opposed to extraction efforts in the Arctic, direct extraction can and should be directed away from areas of high wildlife value,” said WCS-North America Director Jodi Hilty. “The coastal plain provides critical habitat, breeding grounds, migration passage, and more to rare and iconic wildlife.”