Oil Development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge will affect wildlife

Alaska. Arctic National Wildlife Refuge ANWR . Porcupine Caribou Herd. Caribou (Rangifer tarandus).

The Porcupine Caribou Herd as it migrates to the ANWR. (ANWR, 2011)

Andrew Ellis, Environmental Science

Rebecca Garriss, Geoscience

Egle Tamulynas-Mendoza, Pre-Veterinary Science



In 1968, oil was first discovered in Prudhoe Bay (Miller, n.d.). The following years saw a tragic transformation occur with the construction of wells, drill pads, roads, and pipelines. What was once an ideal example of arctic tundra became riddled with oil wells and associated infrastructure. Native wildlife such as caribou were affected through habitat fragmentation. Numerous spills caused behavior modification and outright poisoning (e.g. in 2006, a pipe ruptured and spilled 6,400 barrels of oil, the largest ever recorded on Alaska’s North Slope) (Roach, 2006).

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), less than 100 miles east of Prudhoe Bay, faces a similar plight if drilling occurs within its boundaries. ANWR was established in 1960 after the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife applied to have 8.9 million acres in northeastern Alaska preserved for its “unique wildlife, wilderness and recreation values” (Monaghan, 2009, p. 654). Rare tundra-adapted wildlife such as caribou, arctic birds, polar bears, and cold adapted amphibians call the refuge home. Despite its protected status, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is threatened with oil development.

The United States Geological Survey looked at the coast of ANWR (i.e. Area 1002) in 1998 to estimate the amount of oil there. They estimated that the amount could be between 5.7 billion to 16 billion barrels of oil–an average of 10.4 billion barrels (Freudenrich, 2008). In 2007, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) revised assessments on the oil production potential from ANWR and its helpfulness on imports and world oil prices. It is projected that the total time frame for oil development in ANWR would take approximately 10 years from approval of leases to execution of oil producing wells (Freudenrich, 2008). Due to the climate and the need to transport heavy equipment, drilling could only occur in the winter while the ground is frozen (3-4 months out of the year) as opposed to the summer when transportation of heavy equipment could only be brought in by barge. Oil development in ANWR only provides 0.8 million barrels per day which still forces the U.S. to import 10.5 million barrels per day to keep up with demand (Freudenrich, 2008).  ANWR would not dramatically reduce our dependence on foreign oil as it only accounts for a maximum of 3.2% of domestic consumption in 2025 (Kotchen & Burger, 2007, p. 4723). Sovacool (2007) cites the Department of Energy saying that drilling would only reduce oil imports by 2% by the year 2020, and sustains that ANWR would put out a miniscule amount of oil compared to what the United States needs. (Sovacool, 2007, p. 197).

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of the last vital, untouched tundra wilderness in the United States.  Oil development will affect the behavior, physiology, and mortality rates on the wildlife in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and we propose that the Agreement Between Canada and the U.S. on the Conservation of the Porcupine Caribou Herd be amended to provide better enforcement and protection.



Wildlife in ANWR are specially adapted for survival in the cold harsh climate of the arctic tundra. One species of animal that calls this place home is the caribou. Caribou, a keystone species for this northern ecosystem, are highly valued by the aboriginal groups that live there (Johnson and Russell, 2014). They’ve become an indicator species of the effects of oil development because of their abundance and sensitivity to development (Pelley, 2001). An important part of a caribou’s life is its annual migration that often exceeds hundreds of kilometers from areas such as southern Alaska and the Yukon in Canada (Johnson and Russell, 2014). Research has shown that caribou exhibit avoidance behaviors from man-made structures (such as oil development infrastructure) which has adversely affected their natural migration patterns. Johnson and Russell (2014) state that caribou demonstrated an avoidance response to main roads of 30 km from 1985-1998 and 18.5 km during the years 1999-2012, cutting out an enormous chunk of their habitat.. Avoiding these areas can keep caribou from their breeding and calving grounds which can cause their population to decrease. According to Kotchen and Burger (2007), the Porcupine Caribou Herd (population of 123,000) who migrate up to 1300 km/year, would be directly and negatively affected by development in ANWR, reducing calf survival by 8.2% and reducing the total population by 4.6% (Kotchen & Burger, 2007, p. 4725).

Another aspect of the effects of oil drilling is the reduction of polar bear denning sites. Around 43% of the Beaufort Sea polar bear population use dens in ANWR, making it a vital part of their survival (polar bears in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge n.d.). Polar bear mothers will abandon their young due to their extreme sensitivity to human disturbance. Drilling for oil in ANWR will provide disturbance in the form of seismic testing and oil infrastructure (Durner, Amstrup & Ambrosius, 2009). Unlikely to survive on their own, abandoned polar bear cubs are vulnerable to predation as well as starvation without their mother’s assistance. Added complications include the size of the polar bear population and the difficulty in finding the dens. At most 2,500 polar bears reside in the Beaufort Sea area, making each one a critical member to be preserved (Durner, Amstrup & Ambrosius, 2009). Oil development in ANWR ensures a direct and negative effect on polar bear populations because of their small size and vulnerability to disturbances.

Alaskan wood frogs are threatened by oil development in the ANWR. Amphibians, considered sentinels of the environment, are vulnerable to contamination (Reeves, Dolph, Zimmer, Tjeerdema & Trust., 2008). Oil development causes contamination both through unavoidable spills and runoff from roads and other infrastructure (Reeves, Dolph, Zimmer, Tjeerdema & Trust., 2008). This manifests itself in the frog’s skeletal development, causing problems such as missing appendages, eyes, or poor growth. In a study conducted on the Alaskan wood frog, Reeves, Dolph, Zimmer, Tjeerdema & Trust (2008) found that skeletal abnormalities became much more likely the closer to roads (oil infrastructure). They also found that frogs near roads were much smaller and less developed than those farther away from roads (Reeves et al., 2008). Alaskan wood frogs play an important role in ANWR as an indicator species that show when their environment is becoming contaminated; they are already affected by oil development.

Birds are another very uniquely adapted species that migrate to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge every year during the short nesting season to incubate and rear their young. Oil development has shown to increase subsidized predators. Subsidization of predators occurs when humans alter resource availability in such a way as to cause an increase in the density of predator populations, such as foxes, above the norm (Gompper and Vanak, 2008). According to a study by Liebezeit et al., (2009), more subsidized than non-subsidized predators were located at two oil sites in the Arctic Coastal Plain of Alaska where nest predation was the most common cause of failure at 23% (Liebezeit et al., 2009). These authors also cite evidence from their study that show quantitatively that passerine nest survival decreases as close as 5 km to human infrastructure, with a rapid decrease in nest survival within 1 kilometer of infrastructure (Liebezeit et al., 2009).  Oil development without environmental contamination can have a negative effect on the many species of birds that live there. An increase in subsidized predators causes more nests to be raided, thus less young make it to breeding age.



The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge contains an enormous biological diversity that is protected by the many Arctic treaties to protect wildlife . Yet, despite these treaties and ANWR being a designated refuge, it is still at risk from oil development due to weak enforcement of said treaties. We propose that the 1987 Porcupine Caribou Agreement, signed by the United States and Canada, be given better enforcement and be cleansed of loopholes. We chose this treaty over the others because it refers specifically to the ANWR and the caribou that migrate there from the Yukon (Sovacool, 2006). The Agreement currently stipulates that “The Parties will ensure that the Porcupine Caribou Herd, its habitat and the interests of users of Porcupine Caribou are given effective consideration in evaluating proposed activities within the range of the Herd” (McMillan & Hodel, 1987, 3. Conservation C). It also states that an impact assessment will be conducted and presented by the board and the other party (either Canada or the United States) be notified before any activity occurs with any impact (Mcmillan & Hodel, 1987). While these are good intentions, there is currently nothing that can actually stop drilling from occurring if a party objects. Our proposal would specifically give the board and both parties the ability to block an activity from occurring if it would have a negative impact on the caribou or their habitat. We believe that Canada and the United States might consider this proposal as Canada does not benefit from the United States drilling, and vice versa, giving each motivation to protect the area. We realize that this proposal only seems to protect the caribou, but it is actually the easiest and most effective way to protect the entire habitat. No other treaty refers specifically to the ANWR, and all species will benefit from the protection given by our amended agreement.

Although there is oil in the ANWR, the amount of resources and time put into extracting it wouldn’t produce a vast quantity of oil, and wildlife would be affected by infrastructure and contamination from oil spills. Risk can be heightened in sensitive habitats such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, as seen in Prudhoe Bay. Modern oil and natural gas facilities use harsh chemicals such as polyols, glycols, and halon for fighting off sulfate-reducing bacteria that grow on equipment and as a fire suppressant respectively (Sovacool, 2006, p. 555). These chemicals bring about localized climate change negatively affecting the arctic ecosystem’s carbon and nutrient uptake cycle, growth rate, and nutrient allocation patterns (Sovacool, 2006, p. 556).



The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a vital piece of pristine wilderness whose wildlife should be protected from the damage of oil development. If oil development is allowed, it will have a negative impact on wildlife by disrupting their natural behavior and health. Caribou migratory patterns are disconnected by roads and pipelines which could lead to higher calf mortality rates if females cannot get to safe birthing locations. Polar bear denning sites would be disturbed, decimating cub survival and overall polar bear population numbers. The Alaskan Wood Frog is affected by development and exhibits growth and skeletal abnormalities. Lastly, some species of nesting birds have lower nesting rates due to subsidized predators associated with oil development. ANWR, currently protected by numerous treaties, is under threat of being swept away by oil development. We propose that the Agreement between the Government of Canada and the Government of the United States on the Conservation of the Porcupine Caribou Herd be amended to better enforcement to protect the ANWR.



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Miller, P. A. (n.d.). The impact of oil development on Prudhoe Bay. Arctic Connections. Retrieved from http://arcticcircle.uconn.edu/ANWR/arcticconnections.htm

Monaghan, N. J. (2009). “Drill, baby, drill!”: The arctic national wildlife refuge and america’s energy reckoning. Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics & Public Policy, 23(2), 649-672. Retrieved from EBSCOHost

Pelley, J. (2001). Will drilling for oil disrupt the arctic national wildlife refuge? Environmental Science & Technology, 35(11), 240A. Retrieved from ACS Publications

Polar bears in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (n.d.). US Fish & Wildlife Service. Retrieved from http://www.defenders.org/sites/default/files/publications/polar_bears_in_the_arctic_national_wildlife_refuge.pdf

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