Audubon hails administration move to strengthen protections for Arctic

Yellow-billed Loon. Photo: Thomas Wilberding/Audubon Photography Awards

Juneau, Alaska (KINY) – The National Audubon Society on Friday, April 19 praised a new rule from the Department of the Interior strengthening protections for 13 million acres of “special areas” in the National Petroleum Reserve–Alaska.

The rule also creates a process for designating new Special Areas within the Reserve—a region that is home to numerous Alaska Native communities and one of the most important habitats for birds and wildlife on the planet.

“This rule is critical to protecting the Western Arctic,” Marshall Johnson, chief conservation officer at National Audubon Society said. “As the Arctic rapidly warms, these new regulations will ensure that critical bird habitats like the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area will be resilient in the face of climate change. It is long past time that these lands and waters are given maximum protection.”

The 23-million-acre National Petroleum Reserve–A is the nation’s largest tract of public land. Five designated Special Areas cover more than 13 million acres within the NPR–A, making them some of the nation’s largest swaths of protected public land. 

“As the Arctic undergoes dramatic climatic changes, this new rule is absolutely necessary to protect birds, caribou, and fish,” David Krause, interim executive director at Audubon Alaska said. “Durable protections of these intact and functional ecosystems are essential for habitat and species adaptation, and the continuation of cultural resources and practices throughout the region.”

Congress transferred management of the National Petroleum Reserve–Alaska from the Navy to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in 1976, directing the BLM to balance oil and gas development with the management and protection of these sensitive landscapes.

The previous administration worked to expand oil and gas leasing in the reserve and reduce protections for the Special Areas, but the Biden administration reversed its course in 2022.

This rule will ensure the durability of Special Areas protections going forward by requiring that they remain in place for as long as the values and characteristics in those areas are present.

At least every five years, BLM will review and gather public input on whether existing Special Areas should be expanded, whether new Special Areas should be designated and whether additional resources within Special Areas should be identified for protection. 

The five Special Areas each offer unique value to birds, wildlife, and Alaska Native communities:

  • The Colville River Special Area hosts nests for raptors that migrate long distances, (including Peregrine Falcons, Rough-legged Hawks, and Golden Eagles), and supports 68 bird species, 22 fish species, caribou, moose, wolf, and brown bear.
  • The Kasegaluk Lagoon Special Area supports more avian diversity and abundance than any lagoon in the region, provides nesting and a migration corridor for King Eiders and Common Eiders, and habitat for numerous other species.
  • The Peard Bay Special Area provides nesting habitat for numerous species on Audubon’s Alaska WatchList, like Arctic Terns, Red-throated Loons, Pacific Loons, King Eiders, Long-tailed Ducks, Sabine’s Gull, and Greater White-fronted Geese.
  • The Teshekpuk Lake Special Area is one of the most important Arctic areas for waterbird nesting, molting, and migration anywhere in the Arctic, and supports King Eiders, Northern Pintails, Red-throated Loons, and Tundra Swans.
  • The Utukok Uplands Special Area is a critical calving and insect relief area for one of the largest caribou herds in Alaska–which provides resources for 40 Alaska Native villages, as well as birds and mammals like grizzly bears, wolves, and wolverine.