• WCS calls for increased protection of refuge’s coastal plain
  • WCS’s George Schaller conducted original field surveys that led to the refuge’s creation in 1960  

NEW YORK (December 6, 2010) – The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge today by calling for permanent protection of the refuge’s coastal plain. WCS’s George Schaller was one of the first to survey the refuge more than five decades ago.

Consisting of more than 19 million acres of pristine landscapes in northeastern Alaska, the Arctic Refuge is the largest national wildlife refuge in the United States. The refuge and its coastal plain—referred to as “the sacred place where life begins” by indigenous Gwich’in people—continues to provide critical habitat and migration passage for a diverse array of wildlife, including caribou, muskoxen, polar bears, wolverines, Arctic foxes, lemmings, gyrfalcons, ptarmigans, and a vast international assemblage of migratory birds that breed there in the summer.

The Wildlife Conservation Society – formerly the New York Zoological Society – played an important early role in surveying this region and advocating for its creation. On an exploratory expedition co-sponsored by the Society, graduate student George Schaller (whose later work with WCS established him as the pre-eminent field biologist of our time), accompanied Wilderness Society president Olaus Murie, his wife and fellow conservationist Margaret, and other team members into northeastern Alaska. The expedition’s findings helped push the Department of Interior to set aside this dramatic landscape. Dr. Schaller has gone on to become a conservation icon and ultimately would contribute in part to the creation of 20 parks and protected areas around the world.

“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 Dr. Jodi Hilty. “The coastal plain provides critical habitat, breeding grounds, migration passage, and more to rare and iconic wildlife.”

    "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 Dr. 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."

In 1980, the U.S. Congress enlarged the refuge. Most of the refuge was protected from energy development, but the 1.5-million-acre coastal plain (also known today as Area 1002) was not. This is of great concern to conservationists as the coastal plain is the most important habitat for wildlife in the refuge. WCS scientists note that development on the coastal plain would displace many species such as caribou and snow geese.

In addition, the coastal plain has the highest density of denning polar bears in Arctic Alaska. Faced with dramatic losses of sea ice, polar bears are increasingly dependent on safe and disturbance-free den sites to rear their young. The concentration of wildlife within the plain’s tight footprint – 40 miles at its widest – leaves little room for development there.

From the Top of the World to the Roof of the World-The Schaller Legacy

Dr Schaller’s pioneering work in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge 50 years ago and in protected areas around the world since has evolved and led to critical revelations about the health of the planet. His efforts continue to inform and inspire work by other WCS scientists worldwide.

Schaller’s work in the Arctic promoted key efforts to understand how changing climates will affect such cold-adapted icons as the muskox. WCS scientist Joel Berger is currently working with federal collaborators on questions pertaining to the persistence of muskoxen in Alaska’s western Arctic. Similar questions are the focus of WCS scientist Aili Kang’s work in western China’s Tibet. She is investigating the importance of climate change to the persistence of wild yaks.  Kang was tutored and inspired by George Schaller and his pioneering research in Tibet, which led to the establishment the Chang Tang protected area.

Schaller, Berger, and Kang were three of six awardees honored at the prestigious 2009 Society of Conservation Biology’s meeting in Beijing.

Scott C. Smith: (1-718-220-3698; ssmith@wcs.org)
Stephen Sautner: (1-718-220-3682; ssautner@wcs.org)

The Wildlife Conservation Society saves wildlife and wild places worldwide. We do so through science, global conservation, education and the management of the world's largest system of urban wildlife parks, led by the flagship Bronx Zoo. Together these activities change attitudes toward nature and help people imagine wildlife and humans living in harmony.WCS is committed to this mission because it is essential to the integrity of life on Earth. 

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