Over 200 animal species make the refuge home. The coastal plain has vital caribou birthing grounds, polar bear dens, migratory bird nests and more.
Caribou, photo by Ken Whitten
As one of the wildest places left in America, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is often called the "American Serengeti." The Refuge is home to some of the wold's most diverse and spectacular wildlife including caribou, polar bears, muskoxen, arctic foxes, wolverines, grizzlies, and snow geese. The Refuge's rich wildlife includes 42 fish species, 37 land mammals, eight marine mammals, and more than 200 migratory and resident bird species, all of which depend on this fragile, unique ecosystem for survival.
Caribou are emblems of the Arctic Refuge. They are the backbone of native Gwich’in culture and their migration is an internationally-renowned wildlife spectacle this is the longest land migration of any animal. Each year, the Porcupine Caribou herd of over 150,000 animals migrates as much as 800 miles between their wintering grounds and calving and nursery grounds on the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge.
Since the health of the Porcupine Caribou also depends on the quality of the land in Alaska, the Yukon Territory and the Northwest Territory, protecting caribou is an international task. The international Porcupine Caribou Management Agreement of 1985 between the U.S. and Canada created the Porcupine Caribou Management Board to co-operatively manage the Porcupine Caribou Herd and its habitat. The Canadian government supports protection of the Arctic Refuge coastal plain in furtherance of the interests of its First Nation Gwich’in people including those in Old Crow.
A nesting place:
Each summer, over 200 species of birds may be seen in the Arctic Refuge and over 135 species nest and bear young that begin their lives on the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge. They use the strength they draw from the vibrant tundra to migrate to all 50 states and 6 continents!
The Arctic Refuge hosts all three species of North American bears, black, grizzly and threatened polar bears. Polar bear mothers build their dens on the Coastal Plain, their most important land denning habitat, and use this place to give birth and nurture their young. The United States has an international obligation to “protect the ecosystems of which polar bears are a part, with special attention to habitat components such as denning and feeding sites and migration patterns.”(International Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears, 1973)
The nearshore estuary-like waters fed by the refuge's rivers are enriched by the shallow continental shelf, and iso the coastal waters have a rich nutrient base. In turn, this supports a variety of marine mammals including the endangered bowhead whale. Development and seismic exploration in the Beaufort Sea is harmful to the bowhead whales that rely on the coast of the Arctic Refuge for fall feeding and as a migration route.
The only large mammals that live year-round on the Arctic Refuge Coastal Plain, muskoxen are survivors of the Wisconsin ice age. They disappeared from Alaska’s North Slope more than 100 years ago but were reintroduced in 1969. Muskox add a special link in time and majesty to the refuge and remind us of our responsibility to protect the land for even the hardiest of survivors.