Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Animals threatened by oil drilling in Alaska

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Polar bears are particularly at risk of death in oil spills


The US government is pushing forward controversial plans to allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, setting the terms of a rental program that would give oil companies access to the area.

The Northeast Alaska Wildlife Refuge sits above billions of barrels of oil. However, it is also home to many animals, including reindeer, polar bears, and different species of birds.

The idea of ​​drilling in the area did not originate with President Donald Trump and his administration. On the contrary, the leasing program is only the latest stage in a controversy that has been going on since the late 1970s.

One party argues that oil drilling could bring in significant sums of money, while providing jobs for Alaskans.

Others, however, fear the impact drilling would have on the many animals that live there – as well as the damage that burning more fossil fuels would have on our rapidly warming planet.

This push by the Trump administration comes just two months after the Arctic Circle recorded its highest temperatures on record.

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Muskox is one of the many animal species in the refuge


“This plan could devastate the amazing array of wildlife that inhabit the refuge due to noise pollution, habitat destruction, oil spills and more climate chaos,” said Kristen Monsell, from the US-based Center for Biological Diversity at the BBC.

“The Coastal Plain is the most important land calving habitat for polar bears and is the birthplace of the Porcupine caribou herd.

“Over 200 species of birds are found in the sanctuary along with arctic foxes, black and brown bears, moose and many more. ”

Any oil spill, for example, would not only harm wildlife and their habitat, but could be fatal.

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Controversy over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has continued since 1977


Polar bears, Ms Monsell adds, are “particularly vulnerable” to oil spills.

“Polar bears need to maintain a crisp coat as an insulator against the cold – but when a polar bear comes in contact with spilled oil, it can soak a polar bear’s fur and persist for several weeks. It will be treated and ingested, irritating the skin. , and destroy the insulating capacities of the fur, ”she says.

“Studies show that effects on the lungs, kidneys, blood, gastrointestinal tract and other organs and systems can lead to death. An oil-coated bear that is not cleaned and rehabilitated will likely die.

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Oil can destroy a polar bear’s fur, protecting it from the harsh environment


Oil industry bosses insist they have a well-established record of environmentally responsible development of Alaska’s energy resources. But environmentalists say the US government has not sufficiently considered the risks to wildlife and local communities.

Meanwhile, polar bears are far from the only animals that depend on this vast expanse of wilderness.

The refuge is home to over 200 species of birds. Professor Natalie Boelman, an environmental specialist at Columbia University, describes it as “a huge nursery for avian species.”

“If you go in the spring it’s crazy, every little puddle, even if it’s only half a yard by half a yard … you can barely see the water, it’s just covered. of ducks and geese, ”she told the BBC. .

Learn more about the climate crisis in the Arctic:

She is particularly concerned about the impact of sound levels from any drilling on the animals in the refuge, as well as on the indigenous communities that live nearby.

“Industrial activity causes a lot of noise, aircraft noise, helicopter noise, truck noise, seismic activity,” she says.

“There have been very few scientific studies on how this affects the many different animals up there, but there is a lot of anecdotal evidence that the sounds associated with any human activity really bother them. “

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The refuge is home to more than 200 species of birds, including the northern shrike


This anecdotal evidence, she adds, comes from the native Alaskan communities who live near the shelter.

“Subsistence hunters who really depend on both caribou and waterfowl to support themselves and their families, they really have a hard time hunting when there is air traffic,” says Professor Boelman.

“They say they just have to give up the hunt for a specific animal as soon as a helicopter or plane passes, because that only wakes the animal – and that’s a huge loss for them.

“So we know that it has an impact on the behavior of the animals, and also that it then has an effect on the livelihoods of the communities. But also, what does this noise do about the animals’ stress level? Success? “

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The shelter’s caribou herd is particularly vulnerable


Environmentalists also fear for the Porcupine Caribou, a breed of reindeer from North America that roams the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The coast – where the proposed drilling would take place, should it go ahead – is particularly important to them.

Maggie Howell, executive director of the Wolf Conservation Center, told the BBC: “This coastal plain is the birthplace of caribou, and caribou also have one of the most impressive migrations of all land mammals.

“The herd travels north of the coastal plain every year, about 644 km each way, and that’s where they give birth. Any drilling will have a huge impact on their lives, as well as all other animals and humans. who depend on this caribou. ”

The Alaskan Barren Wolf is an animal that predates the caribou and is therefore also endangered. Ms Howell says her team has “already seen” the damage from drilling in other areas with populations of caribou and wolves, such as Alberta in Canada.

“As a refuge, it is there to be preserved,” says Howell. “It is not only a haven for wildlife, but also a symbol of our country’s national heritage.

“And if these animals can’t be safe in a wildlife sanctuary, where can they be? Where can they be left alone to live their lives and achieve their own goal?

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