Yukon Flats is the third largest wildlife refuge in the United States, encompassing approximately 11.1 million acres of land (8.63 million acres in federal ownership). Extending 220 miles east-west along the Arctic Circle, the refuge lies between the Brooks Mountain Range to the north and the jagged limestone peaks of the White Mountains to the south. The Trans-Alaska Pipeline corridor runs along the refuge’s western boundary while the eastern boundary extends to within 30 miles of the Canadian border. The Yukon River flows through refuge lands, sculpting the vast floodplain of lakes, ponds, and streams that dominate the landscape.
Tens of thousands of lakes and ponds spot the Yukon Flats Refuge, mostly concentrated in the floodplains along the Yukon River and some of its tributaries. The surrounding uplands, where there are fewer lakes, serve as important drainage systems from the bordering mountains, hills, and highlands.
The abundance of water in lakes, ponds, and streams provides important habitat for waterfowl from all four North American flyways. The refuge hosts as many as two million ducks annually and supports the highest breeding densities in Alaska. Alaska's only endemic fish, the Bering Cisco, spawns in the flats as well.
Each unit of the National Wildlife Refuge System is established to serve a statutory purpose that targets the conservation of native species dependent on its lands and waters. All activities on those acres are reviewed for compatibility with this statutory purpose.
Alaska Native peoples living within and near the Yukon Flats are primarily Gwich'in Athabascans. Seven villages lie within or adjacent to the boundary of Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge. Local residents have a long history of harvesting the region's natural resources for subsistence purposes. A significant number of archaeological sites have been found within the refuge, mostly along waterbodies at prime hunting and fishing locations. Archaeologists believe that the Yukon Flats likely formed part of the corridor that American Indians traveled more than 10,000 years ago to access North America from the Bering Land Bridge.
In 1838, Russian fur traders arrived in eastern Alaska but only made it as far as Nulato, 350 miles downriver of the refuge. In 1845, John Bell became the first Anglo to reach Yukon Flats. Two years later, he established Alaska’s first English-speaking community, Fort Yukon, as a fur trading post for the Hudson’s Bay Company. During peak production, Fort Yukon exported as many as 8,000 marten pelts each year, making it the Hudson’s Bay Company’s most important fur producer west of the Rocky Mountains. With the introduction of trapping for European fur traders, the subsistence lifestyle of local natives changed to incorporate wage labor such as cutting wood for steamboats and freight hauling. After the U. S. purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867, Hudson’s Bay Company was forced to relocate to Canadian soil, and the Alaska Commercial Company assumed operations in Fort Yukon. Fort Yukon still stands today and is the most populous community inside the refuge boundary.
Gold was discovered on Birch Creek in 1893, and the community of Circle rapidly expanded to a population of more than 1,000 people during the boom that followed. Although news of gold elsewhere eventually lured miners away, trapping continued to expand due to high fur prices. Fort Yukon was the most important fur center in Alaska in the 1920s until low fur prices in the 1940s decimated the industry.
During the late 1950s, a major hydroelectric dam project was proposed for the Yukon River at Rampart Canyon, about 85 miles downriver from the refuge. That dam, if constructed, would have flooded the entire Yukon Flats and the villages within it, creating a lake larger than Lake Erie. Environmental organizations, hunters, Alaska Native groups, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took a firm stand against this proposed project. In order to illustrate the importance of the Yukon Flats to national waterfowl populations, biologists conducted extensive waterfowl banding efforts. The results of these efforts showed that birds breeding at the Yukon Flats overwintered throughout the entire United States, supplementing each of the four North American flyways. The final report stated that “Nowhere in the history of water development in North America have the fish and wildlife losses anticipated to result from a single project been so overwhelming.” As a result, official protection of the Yukon Flats by the federal government began in 1978 with the designation of the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Monument.
When the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act was passed on December 2, 1980, the monument designation was dropped, boundary adjustments were made, and Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge was created.