Endangered Species Report #50
The Animals of ANWR
Written by: Holly Koppel
There has been a lot of debate recently in Washington D.C. about whether or not to drill for oil in part of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. A lot of Senators and Congressmen wonder what all this fuss is about; after all, it is only "2,000 acres" of wilderness, to them it doesn't seem like much of a big deal. Even getting people to write in to their representatives to oppose the drilling is proving difficult for environmentalists because there are those people who think that all they are trying to do is take away their right to buy an SUV or truck. In reality, all the environmentalists are trying to do is preserve the habitat that some of the nation's favorite wildlife comes from.
Do you know what was named America's favorite animal last year? Baltimore Zoo's polar bear, Magnet. People love to go to the zoo to watch Magnet swim, play with the toys in his exhibit, or just lounge around enjoying the weather. But what if Magnet was the last of his kind? What if there were no polar bears left after he died?
The American public doesn't like to think about these possibilities; death and extinction are not ideas they want to deal with. To most, the extinction of a species is inconceivable because of the time it takes to bring it to term; for instance, look at the case of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. No one gave much thought to the "white ghost" of the American swamplands as loggers cut down trees in the name of progress. Now, the ivory-billed woodpecker is considered extinct by most scientists, with the exception of a few who still believe it may be hiding out there, away from the prying eyes of the scientific community.
Could the fate of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker befall yet another of America's favorite species, the Polar Bear? No one is really sure, but let us take a look at the facts, sift through the politics, and find the real story of the animals of ANWR.
First, let us begin by borrowing from an old journalism standard. Let us look at what the debate is, where this would take place, and why?
What is the issue being considered? The issue on the table is the cornerstone of President Bush's energy plan, to drill for oil on part of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). This refuge is part of over a 100 national wildlife refuges found all across the United States. These refuges were introduced by President Theodore ("Teddy") Roosevelt after public outcry over the loss of thousands of birds to the fashion industry. These refuges are pieces of land identified as key habitat for a variety of different species in a particular area. The refuges are meant as safe havens for wildlife that has been displaced by human disturbance. The issue here is whether or not to drill for oil in an area that was originally set aside for wildlife.
Our next question is, exactly where would this drilling take place? According to the politicians, it would be only 2,000 acres; however, the bill actually says it would be "only 1.5 million acres" of the coastal plain of Alaska along the Beaufort Sea. The coastal plain is narrow in size, only about 15-40 miles across, which would limit the wildlife's ability to move around the drilling. What politicians would like to have people keep in mind is that ANWR is the biggest wildlife refuge in the United States, encompassing a total of 19 million acres along the Alaskan coastal plain. From their point of view, 1.5 million acres is not much compared to the rest of ANWR. Environmentalists disagree saying that any drilling, no matter how little, would adversely affect the wildlife living there.
Our final question would be, why does the government want to drill in ANWR? This is not an easy question to answer as there are many different reasons politicians, the media, and environmentalists will cite as reasons for drilling. Politicians tend to cite two main reasons: one, to decrease our dependence on foreign oil, and two, to provide jobs and better educational opportunities to the people of Alaska.
The first reason, decreasing our reliance on foreign oil, sounds reasonable at first, especially in light of our ongoing war with Iraq, but we are not getting the entire story here. What the politicians fail to add is that just 60 miles west of the oil site in question in ANWR, there are oil wells in use. This is the Prudhoe Bay oil field which has been producing oil for the United States since the mid-1980's. What they also fail to mention is that the oil in ANWR is not concentrated in one big reservoir (as is usually the case), but is scattered about the landscape. What this means is that the oil companies would have to build miles and miles of pipelines, wells, roads, and helicopter pads to be able to get any oil from the site.
Another thing that is rarely mentioned is that oil production from ANWR could not begin for 10 years, and it would take an additional 15 years before we would even begin to see any of the oil. How is that going to help us break free from depending on foreign oil? We can only hope that we are still not at war with Iraq in 15 years!
Most politicians will tell you that in 15-20 years, the supply from the Prudhoe Bay oil field will dry up, and we will have no other option than to drill in ANWR anyway, so why not start now? Environmentalists counter this argument by pointing out that in 10-15 years, the technology of hybrid cars may be farther along, and this would certainly decrease our reliance on foreign oil. If the popularity of these new hybrid cars continues, then more and more car manufacturers might show an interest in developing the technology. Right now, the advancement of technology is rather slow because people are very used to their oil dependent cars and are wary about alternatives, especially ones that seem radical (like solar powered cars or hydrogen powered cars). What people need to realize and accept is that oil is not a renewable energy source, we will eventually run out of it, and all the oil wells throughout the world will dry up. Waiting until that happens and then trying to figure out a solution is wasting years where manufacturers could be fine tuning the new designs so that these may help slow down the waste of oil. Unfortunately at the moment, American car manufacturers have shown only a little interest in pursuing alternative fuels, and have left the innovations up to foreign auto makers. Perhaps if oil were not so readily available, then the American car manufacturers would be forced to come up with some innovative ideas of their own.
Also according to politicians, drilling in ANWR would create more jobs for the people of Alaska. This sounds like a really good idea, and especially considering our economy, finding people new jobs is usually a good thing. According to the government, drilling would create up to 250,000-735,000 new jobs; however, I think we can safely say that the animals of ANWR would not appreciate 735,000 more people in their habitat, no matter what the reason. Besides, if there really is not much oil in ANWR, as many environmental groups claim, those 735,000 people wouldn't have their new jobs for very long, and will end up draining Alaska and the Federal Government's unemployment benefits. Politicians don't tend to like to think of those possibilities, and would rather assume that there is a large quantity of oil there, and if there isn't, they are sure that people would have saved their money or invested it in our sagging stock market so they could still support their families.
Politicians also say that drilling in ANWR will have absolutely no adverse affects on the wildlife that currently inhabit that area. According to a report recently released by the National Academy of Science (and commissioned by Congress), drilling in Alaska has already adversely affected the wildlife living there. According to the report the 30 years of road building, noise, and oil exploration has affected the animal's behavior, harmed vegetation, and caused erosion. The report has also found that noise from seismic techniques used to search for oil have driven the Bowhead Whales further offshore, and forced native hunters (the Inuit) to travel further in search of food. Also, off road oil exploration vehicles have been found to be flattening the tundra (which does not rebuild itself as quickly as a forest might), and frightening animals from nesting and grazing sites. So, despite the government's insistence that drilling in ANWR wouldn't have any affect on the wildlife, it has been proved by that National Academy of Science that drilling in Alaska (Prudhoe Bay) has already negatively impacted the wildlife living in that region.
So, what wildlife can be found in ANWR, and how would drilling in that area affect them? Well, the one that is cited the most by environmentalists is the Polar Bear. Polar Bears are mainly found in the arctic region surrounding the North Pole, and have been reported as far south as Greenland. They mainly inhabit Alaska, Central Siberia, Iceland, and parts of Canada. The polar bear mainly preys on the ringed seal, but will also eat bearded seals, harp seals, hooded seals, walruses, and sea birds. The Polar Bear is the top predator in the arctic.
One of the main problems with drilling in ANWR is that the drilling would have a big impact on the breeding of the Polar Bear. Mating for Polar Bears takes place in late winter to early spring (March-June), and the delayed implantation extends gestation for another 195-265 days after mating. The pregnant female will establish a winter den, and cubs (about two) will be born sometime between November-January. Usually the mother will stay in the den nursing the cubs until mid-April, but with drilling, Polar Bear mothers have been known to abandon their dens and their young. This is especially bad because when the cubs are born, they are born blind and are completely dependent on their mother in those first few months. If a mother abandons the den, chances are that the cubs will not survive long on their own.
Another reason drilling in the arctic can adversely affect the Polar Bear is because it also has an effect on their prey. The Ringed Seal (the Polar Bear's favorite) is the most common seal found in the arctic, and is very rarely found in the open sea, they prefer areas where the ice is firm. Ringed seals make lairs in the snow and ice for protection from predators and also for thermal shelter. How they are found by Polar Bears is that when the seals are under the ice, they create breathing holes by breaking cracks into the ice. All the bears have to do is look for the cracks, and dive into the water.
Drilling can adversely affect the seals in a couple of different ways. One way is by an oil spill. Almost everyone remembers the Exxon-Valdez oil spill from 1989 and how devastating that was to wildlife. If oil or toxic spills occur in or near the sea they can be particularly harmful, because oil remains toxic for longer periods in cold waters, and it concentrates in open waters, in the sea ice, and breathing holes--where Ringed Seals are commonly found. Despite the fact that politicians and Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton insist that oil companies have discovered "new and innovative" ways to drill that reduce the number of oil spills, in the Prudhoe Bay alone, there is one oil spill per day. In fact, in 1999 these spills released 45,000 gallons of crude oil, diesel fuel, propane and ethylene glycol into the water. In 1998 and 1999, BP Amoco (the oil company drilling in Prudhoe Bay) was fined $6 million for spills in Alaska.
The impacts of these spills are most severe on marine mammals because they "bio-accumulate" many of the toxic chemicals in their bodies which results in the release of more concentrated doses further down the food chain (to the Polar Bear or Arctic Fox who eat them). Marine mammals are also affected by noises from industrial activity because it affects their navigation, social interactions, capturing prey, and predator avoidance.
Polar Bears and marine mammals are not the only animals that would be adversely affected by the drilling in ANWR. One of the keystone species in ANWR is the Porcupine Caribou, which migrates yearly from Canada to the United States. In July of 1987, the United States entered into a treaty with the Canadian government to protect the Porcupine Caribou herd in ANWR because the herd was recognized as a "unique and irreplaceable natural resource of great value which each generation should maintain and make use of so as to conserve them for future generations." The protected herd (and land) according to the treaty is specifically for the caribou found north of the Yukon River which usually share common and traditional calving grounds between the Canning River in Alaska and the Babbage River in the Yukon Territory of Canada. According to the treaty, protecting the habitat means specifically: "the whole or any part of the ecosystem, including summer, winter and migration range, used by the Porcupine Caribou Herd during the course of its long-term movement-patterns, as generally outlined on the map."
So, if the United States has already signed a treaty back in 1987 to protect this herd and its habitat, why is drilling in ANWR still on the table? Well, it wouldn't be the first time in the Bush Administration that they have broken a treaty with another country; however, Canada has some say in what happens to the herd, and must (according to the treaty) be consulted when plans to alter the habitat are made. According to an article posted in January 2001 in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Canada does not want the United States to drill for oil in the coastal plain of ANWR. According to Canada's environment minister, David Anderson, "The Arctic Refuge was originally put in place for calving by a caribou herd that crosses the boundary between our two countries." Canada has already created two national parks to protect its part of the herd, and Anderson noted that the Porcupine Caribou are a vital food source for native peoples in the Yukon Village of Old Crow.
Native cultures are not the only thing that the Canadian Government is concerned about losing in this fight against the Bush Administration. Anderson believes that the Bush team may be right about the oil technology improving over the past 30 years; however, he says, "You can't go as far as arguing that this is adequate to deal with the calving caribou, from what I hear from scientists, and what I heard from the Clinton Administration." The Clinton Administration had also opposed drilling and cited scientific studies that claimed roads and drill rigs would disturb caribou calving, and disrupt a predator population that includes Grizzly Bears, Wolves, Wolverines, and Lynx (which is already considered a threatened species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service). Anderson echoed the sentiments of the Clinton Administration saying that "Many of these other animals, particularly the North Slope Grizzly—an animal that needs an immense amount of habitat—would be affected. It is an ecosystem we are talking about."
Anderson also notes that perhaps the Texas background and work in the oil industry may make it easier for the President to want to disregard a treaty with the Canadians and drill for oil regardless of the cost to wildlife. "We are well aware the borders of Texas are not with Canada, but with Mexico. In comparison with Clinton, we believe that we are going to have to work a little harder than we would have to if the president had come from a state bordering Canada," said Anderson.
Still, even seeing that Polar Bears, marine mammals, and Porcupine Caribou would be adversely affected by drilling, not to mention the political effects of breaking a treaty, the lawmakers in Washington are still not convinced. What does it take to convince them? Environmentalists can spend hour upon hour rolling out names of species in the Arctic Refuge, and explain over and over again how they would be affected, but Congress has turned a deaf ear and refuses to listen. So, what is it that we must do to convince them? Certainly writing letters to your representatives helps as you can tell them that you oppose the drilling, but will they listen? If the response from the Virginian representatives is any indication, most likely not, but wait! Don't put that letter away! Get your pen and paper back out, or get back to your keyboard: these letters do make a difference. But we must figure out what it is the Congressman or Senator cares about, what they are thinking about when they vote "yes" for drilling in ANWR.
In theory, your representatives are there to vote their conscience, and before you say politicians don't have a conscience, let us not forget those whom we have lost, those politicians like Senator Paul Wellstone. Senator Wellstone had said in a CNN interview, "I really tried to never do anything I don't believe in, so I don't want to change it now. I really don't." Senator Wellstone was known to his constituents as their Environmental Champion, and also opposed drilling in ANWR. According to the Senator, "When I first came to the Senate, my first year in 1991, I think with Senators Lieberman and Baucus, we started a filibuster against well drilling in ANWR. We succeeded. I am proud to be part of this effort as well ...This whole idea of energy independence for America, based on another idea that we drill our way to independence, makes no sense. The United States of America has 3 percent of the world's oil reserves, but we use 25 percent of the world's supply. Saudi Arabia has 46 percent of the world's supply. On [this] point, I take my colleagues to task. I don't think we get more energy independence from this." Senator Wellstone voted his conscience, but do our other Senators and Congressmen? Sometimes it's hard to tell because with 2/3 of Americans against drilling ANWR, the last time it came up for vote (March 2003), it was only defeated by two votes. Only two votes.
So, how do we approach our representatives, and what do we tell them to try to make them understand how important ANWR is to the American people (and to the Canadians too!). Well, as with business, money is the key. We need to cite examples of how drilling in ANWR is not economically sound, that it will most likely cost more money in the long-term than save us money in the short-term. As I stated before, in the short-term, drilling in ANWR would create about 735,000 jobs, but in the long-term there would 735,000 more people vying for the unemployment benefits from the federal government, something the Democrats and Republicans held up for thousands of Americans at Christmas time. Advocates of drilling in ANWR say that paying unemployment benefits for out of work employees would be insignificant compared with the money that we would gain from drilling. According to advocates, we can hope to see about $50 billion trickle into the nation's economy (as we supposedly received between 1980-1994 from Prudhoe Bay). Where would this money go? According to Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton, the money would be used to further fund hydrogen fuel cell initiative (which President Bush spoke about in his State of the Union Address). Norton also said that the rest of the proceeds (as not all of it would go to hydrogen fuel cell research—if any in reality), would be split 50/50 between the government and the state of Alaska; however, Democratic Senators say the bill does not include that provision.
Your representatives may also be watching the rising cost of gasoline here in the United States, and many believe that drilling in ANWR would significantly reduce the amount paid by citizens at the pump. As so many Americans decry the price of gas, and moan and groan that they can't afford to exorbitant prices, are they doing anything to curb their consumption? It has been estimated that the oil from ANWR would only provide the United States with about a six-month supply of oil at our current consumption rate; what good is that going to do? The unfortunate thing is that even the citizens who do look for alternative methods of transportation are given few choices. Here in Virginia, there is no bus service out to some of the western suburbs, there is no Metro rail out to the newer suburbs (only to a suburb 10-15 miles from Washington D.C.), and walking and biking around the state is almost as dangerous as walking through Central Park in New York City at night. What is a concerned citizen to do?
One suggestion is obvious; buy a hybrid car from one of the automakers that manufacture them. Even if you are only interested in an SUV, General Motors announced plans to produce hybrid SUVs this January. Initially these hybrids are only expected to improve fuel economy by about 12%; however, Larry Burns, GM's vice president of research said that the company will add its "displacement on demand" engine management system which shuts down half the cylinders on V-8 and V-6 engines at highway cruising speeds which will bring fuel savings to 20%.
Just as GM was announcing plans to produce hybrid SUVs, the Ford Motor Company said it will begin selling a hybrid version of the Escape (a mini-SUV) in 2005, and DaimlerChrysler is planning a hybrid Dodge Ram pickup also for 2005. So, for those representatives that are tired of hearing complaints from their constituents about the high price of oil, they could try and make information about hybrid vehicles more available to the public or use their political power to encourage developers to build new developments with sidewalks thus making it safer to walk to places.
Another reason your representatives may be voting "yes" on the bill to drill in ANWR is because they believe that this will make America safer. Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton said, "America's national security depends on a steady, secure oil supply. The Bush agenda, with ANWR drilling, made sense when it was proposed in May 2001, and it certainly makes sense after September 11th." It seems like the Bush Administration will use September 11th, 2001 as an excuse to get away with just about anything (for example our war with Iraq). Your representatives may be swayed by the Bush rhetoric, that to protect America we must free ourselves from our dependence on foreign oil, but most oil companies have already stated that they have no interest in the ANWR location, and have already begun to look for offshore drilling sites. It seems as if the Bush Administration and Republican representatives are the only ones really interested in drilling in ANWR; if the oil companies themselves have little or no interest, why bother? If the oil companies move to off-shore sites, then drilling in ANWR isn't really going to help free the United States from foreign oil; many Democratic representatives say that the administration is using this ploy as a "cheap trick."
The final reason your representative might be voting "yes"" on this measure is because they do not deem ANWR economically viable. A lot of representatives don't see any revenue coming from the refuge because "no one goes there." Even Interior Secretary Norton backed these representatives up in her statement that ANWR is "an area of flat, white nothingness." That might be how the United States government feels about ANWR and about the Alaskan tundra, but Canada views their tundra quite differently--in fact they have found profit through eco-tourism! In Churchill, Manitoba, tourists can take advantage of various tours that take them out onto the tundra to view the variety of wildlife. One such tour is Tundra Buggy Tours, Ltd. that takes visitors out where they can get inches away from Polar Bears, lemmings, Arctic Foxes, caribou, and snowy owls. The buggies have an outdoor viewing platform, propane heat, restrooms, and a two-way radio for safety. The company describes these buggies as a roomy bus mounted on six foot tall all terrain rubber tires. The buggies seat up to 26 people, but for photography groups, the maximum seating is 10, and this is to allow everyone to carry their camera equipment.
If the Government of the United States wants to make the Arctic Refuge more economically viable, perhaps they could put the money they are spending on researching oil production in ANWR into two things: 1. research into why people don't visit ANWR, and 2., eco-tourism alternatives. From the amount of people that visit Yellowstone each year (2,838,233 visitors in 2000) to view Bison, Grizzly Bears, and Elk, it is obvious that people enjoy visiting parks and refuges to view wildlife that they would never have the opportunity to see in their backyard. Plus, if America's pick for their favorite animal, Magnet the polar bear, is any indication, the people of America do indeed love the animals of ANWR.
So write your representatives, tell them how you feel about ANWR, explain to them that drilling for oil is not going to help the United States no matter what excuse they cook up. The 1800's were known as the century of extinction, let us show that we have learned from the mistakes of our forefathers, and work diligently to help make the 2000's known as the century of conservation. Let's get the vote out, get those letters written, and let the Bush Administration know that they can't bully all the representatives in Congress and the Senate into destroying America's Serengeti.
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NWF's Arctic Refuge Page
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Endangered Species Report #48: Canadian Lynx
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USFWS Arctic Refuge site
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