Above, an American Kestrel, one
of the 180 species of
birds have been recorded in the Arctic Refuge. Source: USFWS.
Photograph: George W. Robinson © California Academy
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
The Arctic Refuge was established in 1960 as a
promise to the American people to preserve "wildlife, wilderness
and recreational values." Vast and remote, this 19.5 million-acre
refuge is the size of South Carolina. While 8.9 million acres are
designated as wilderness, the 1.5 million-acre coastal plain, the
biological heart of the refuge, does not yet have wilderness designation.
Oil drilling has been proposed on the coastal plain.
The refuge contains the greatest variety of plant
and animal life of any conservation area in the circumpolar north.
It is home to thirty-six species of land mammals, nine species of
marine mammals, and at least thirty-six species of fish. Additionally,
180 species of birds converge on the refuge from six different continents
during their seasonal migrations.
A Porcupine caribou herd with 120,000 members
migrates throughout the refuge. The pregnant females come to the
coastal plain to give birth in late May and early June. The annual
migration of this herd is the reason the refuge is sometimes called,
All three species of North American bear (black,
grizzly, and polar) range within the refuge's borders. The most
consistently used polar bear land-denning area in Alaska, it is
the only national conservation area where polar bears regularly
den. The pregnant bears dig their dens in November, and then give
birth to one or two tiny cubs in December or January. The mothers
nurse and care for their young at the den until March or early April.
The once-endangered muskox, an Ice Age relic,
lives on the refuge's coastal plain and gives birth to its young
from mid-April through mid-May, when the coastal plain is still
fully covered in snow. The refuge also contains North America's
northernmost moose and Dall sheep populations. Year-round residents,
Dall sheep have lived in the Arctic Refuge since the Pleistocene.
Millions of birds come to the refuge each year.
Their migrations from the refuge take them to each of the fifty
states, as well as to six of the seven continents. About seventy
species of birds nest on the narrow Arctic Refuge coastal plain.
Each autumn, this plain supports up to 300,000 snow geese, which
leave their nesting grounds in Canada to feed on the reserve's cotton
grass so they can build fat reserves before heading south to their
The reserve is a place of wilderness, where timeless
ecological and evolutionary processes continue in their natural
ebb and flow. It includes the four highest peaks and most of the
glaciers in the majestic Brooks mountain range. It also includes
North America's two largest and most northerly alpine lakesPeters
Compiled from Arctic National
Wildlife Refuge reports of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.