Craig Medred / Outdoors/ Anchorage Daily News / October 9, 2005
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a wild and awe-inspiring landscape relentlessly mischaracterized.
Here is the October issue of Smithsonian magazine: "Though ANWRs coastal plain boasts a dazzling abundance of wildlife -- the largest concentration of land-denning polar bears in Alaska, enormous flocks of migratory birds, wolves, wolverines, musk oxen, Arctic fox and snowy owls -- the caribou remain the symbol of the fight over the refuge."
This theme has become the environmental touchstone for ANWR, and it is a fraud.
ANWR is wild and awe-inspiring not for its abundance of wildlife but for the unsettling scarcity of it, for a biological nonproductivity that is almost otherworldly, for the feeling the plain gives one that here exists the very edge of survival for life as we know it.
Wildlife numbers on the plain are, in reality, so low you can almost count the animals on your fingers and toes. As documented in studies by the National Biological Survey, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, these are the counts:
* Twenty-two polar bear dens. Biologists count dens and not bears, because polar bears seldom come ashore except to den.
* An occasional wolf. There are approximately 34 of these animals on the entire North Slope of the Brooks Range. They sometimes range onto the coastal plain but spend 91 percent of their time in the Brooks Range foothills or the mountains themselves.
* Too few wolverines to even warrant an attempt at a census.
* Somewhere around 60 musk oxen. There were once about 250, but the population has been in dramatic decline, possibly because of predation by grizzly bears.
Oddly enough, grizzly bears are not mentioned in this "dazzling abundance of wildlife," although they are comparatively common (at least compared with wolves and musk oxen) on the North Slope. More than 100 grizzlies are estimated to roam the foothills and mountains, and they, too, occasionally range onto the coastal plain.
Grizzly bears have a survival advantage over other mammals inhabiting the region because they can escape the brutal winters by hibernating. Still, their number is small. Those 100 bears on the North Slope of the Brooks are hard to find. Their range of millions of acres provides enough room for them to disappear.
They are not like the 50 to 60 bears that can gather all within sight at the falls at the McNeil State Wildlife Sanctuary. Still, as one of the more plentiful high-Arctic species, the bears help to illustrate that the refuge is not a place of "dazzling abundance" but a place of dazzling scarcity.
Lump together the numbers of all the charismatic megafauna mentioned above and the count is less than 250. The immediate Anchorage area alone is home to more than four times as many large mammals -- in this case moose -- not to mention black and grizzly bears, wolverines, and wolves.
Yes, wolves. The last census estimated there were 27 of them in four or five packs inhabiting the half-million-acre Chugach State Park behind Anchorage. The coastal plain is three times as large and is only rarely visited by one of the 34 wolves that really inhabit a range more like 20 or 30 times as large as Chugach State Park.
But then, of course, there are those caribou, about 130,000 of them, now, in the Porcupine caribou herd. Like the birds, which are for some brief times in some places plentiful on the coastal plain, the caribou visit for only a brief period.
The rest of the time they roam through the nearly 20 million-acre refuge and to the east into Canada.
Think about that: 130,000 caribou spread over more than 20 million acres. That's about one caribou for every 150 acres.
The southern part of New York state, where human habitation has destroyed much wildlife habitat, has about one whitetail deer per 15 acres, making the deer of New York 10 times as plentiful as the deer of ANWR.
So how has it become conventional wisdom that the coastal plain of ANWR is an area of dazzling wildlife abundance?
In the effort to prevent oil drilling there, environmental organizations have put their spin on things, just as have oil and development interests. Spend some time on the North Slope of ANWR, and it becomes difficult to decide which side lies more.
Alaska development and oil interests, for instance, would have you believe that they could create an oil field with such a small "footprint" that it would disturb almost nothing. What they fail to mention is that it would change everything.
If the drill rigs go in, the wild and awe-inspiring landscape will disappear not just from the coastal plain. It will be gone from nearly all of the North Slope of the Brooks Range in the ANWR. This is a place where you really can see forever.
If the plain becomes an oil field, it is doubtful that there will be a place or a time that the broad vistas of today won't be scorched by the flaming of natural gas over drill rigs.
What is awe-inspiring wilderness worth? I don't know.
What I do know is that we still have oil, but this is the last of the wild, undeveloped plains left in America. The others have all been carved up by roads, plowed under for agriculture, paved over to create towns that are now, slowly, dying.
Walk across the coastal plain, and you can still get some idea of what America must have looked like to the first white people to head west across the continent toward the Pacific. It's a pretty intimidating view. It makes ANWR one of the few places you can still get to that's far enough away from civilization to challenge not only the body but the soul.
This is the real value of the coastal plain.
The potential loss of this is something as real as the animal issues are bogus. You can argue for hours about what oil development would do to caribou numbers, but the fact is that caribou -- like other deer, including those moose in Anchorage -- have proven themselves pretty adaptable.
The Nelchina and Fortymile herds are doing fine, though they cross roads and pipelines and get shot at by people. There is no reason to believe it would be any different for the Porcupine caribou. The number of caribou might decline, but the caribou wouldn't disappear.
Polar bears denning on the coastal plain are of far more concern, but even there the damage could probably be mitigated. The tiny population of these animals giving birth on American soil could probably be preserved.
Oil development, though, is certain to kill something more important -- the character of the coastal plain. Once drilling starts, the place will never be the same. The drill rigs will punch the heart out of the wildness, and there will be no going back.
It's a saddening thought strong enough to make some people say almost anything to protect the refuge. The result, unfortunately, is that the public policy ends up becoming a liars' contest. So much of American politics seems like that today, and it's a sad commentary on us all.
Daily News Outdoors editor Craig Medred can be reached at email@example.com.