Every summer, clouds of
shorebirds scatter across the
coastal plain of Arctic National
Wildlife Refuge like leaves fluttering
across the tundra.
The chilly windswept plain, where
northeastern Alaska meets the Arctic
Ocean, nurtures these delicate birds as
they raise their young. Many species
use the refuge: turnstones and
dowitchers, phalaropes and plovers,
and scores of sandpipers.
But the arctic environment, resilient
in so many ways, is shifting. Climate
change, being seen all over the globe, is
moving twice as fast in northern Alaska.
With less sea ice and more open water,
the coast is more vulnerable to storm
surges and erosion. In the mountains
south of the coastal plain, the glaciers are
ebbing, which could change the character
of the riverside and delta habitats many
shorebird species favor. Oil and gas
exploration near the refuge could have
an impact, too.
For David Payer, supervisory ecologist
at the 19.3-million-acre refuge, the
potential for major environmental change
in the future makes baseline research
crucial now. Only by establishing a clear
understanding of shorebird populations
and ecology can the refuge staff know how
habitats are changing and how to react.
Many shorebird species are declining,
so biologists are working to learn the
birds distribution, required habitats,
abundance, food, breeding success and
seasonal movements. Its vital for us to
understand what habitats are important
for these birds, what drives their use of
habitat, Payer says.
Getting that information is challenging.
The refuge is about the size of South
Carolina, with no roads or marked trails.
Everything researchers needfrom
tents to solar-powered computersmust
be flown in (and out). Finding nests can
mean walking miles through tussocks
and boot-sucking muskeg. The weather is
often cold and damp. Snow can show up,
even in summer. Bearsboth polar bears
and grizzliescan show up, too.
Despite the obstacles, field studies over
more than a decade have begun to get a
statistical picture of many species. This
summer, scientists conducted two major
research efforts: a demographic survey
of shorebirds breeding success and nest
distribution near the Canning River delta;
and a survey of birds, their habitat and
prey during the crucial feeding period
just before the grueling migration south.
An earlier study looked at whether
human development might inadvertently
help arctic nesting birds predators.
The refuges scientists say its critical
to work with other groups, that only a
cooperative effort can succeed.
As vast as the Arctic Refuge is, its not
an island unto itself, Payer says. These
species, whether they be shorebirds or
grizzly bears or caribou or whatever, dont
see the borders that we put on a map.
Over more than a decade, partners have
included the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service field office in Fairbanks, the
Service migratory bird management
division, Manomet Center for
Conservation Sciences, the Wildlife
Conservation Society, U.S. Geological
Survey, University of Alaska Fairbanks,
University of Texas Marine Science
Institute, Kansas State University,
Bureau of Land Management, Bureau
of Ocean Energy Management, BP
Exploration (Alaska), ConocoPhillips
Alaska, Kaktovik Inupiat Corporation,
the North Slope Borough and the
Canadian Wildlife Service.
Stephen Brown, director of shorebird
science at the Manomet Center and a
key collaborator, explains: Many species
of arctic nesting shorebirds are in
significant decline, and we need to devise
conservation strategies to reverse those
declines if we want healthy populations
of wildlife to persist. We dont know what
is causing the declines for most of the
species, so there is a lot we need to
John Pancake is a freelance writer who
lives in Goshen Pass, VA.