Today marks the 50th anniversary of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Within its sprawling 19.2-million acres habitat is protected for more than 180 species of birds and 45 mammals, including polar bears, grizzly bears, muskox, and caribou.
When America celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on December 6, it’s important to remember that it was the preservation of migrating herds of caribou—the refuge’s signature species—that jump-started the land withdrawal movement. As president from 1901 to 1909, Theodore Roosevelt crusaded on behalf of big game protection. He created national reserves for buffalo, elk, and antelope. After leaving the White House, he traveled to British East Africa at the behest of the Smithsonian Institution. There he marveled at the savannahs teeming with eland, zebra, and antelope. Upon his return to the United States, in June 1910, he decided that more attention should be paid to protecting Alaska’s Dall sheep, caribou, and northern fur seals.
Coinciding with Roosevelt’s crusade to protect Alaska’s big game were explorer Charles Sheldon’s riveting reports of his Mount KcKinley expedition, and naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton’s 1911 book, The Arctic Prairies. “The Caribou is a travelsome beast, always in a hurry, going against the wind,” Seton wrote. “When the wind is west, all travel west; when it veers, they veer . . . but they are ever on the move. When you see a Caribou that does not move, you know at once it is not a Caribou, it’s a rock.”
As president, Roosevelt had created the spectacular Chugach National Forest in Alaska. He was dismayed to learn that his hand-chosen White House successor, William Howard Taft, was allowing the Morgan-Guggenheim syndicate to undermine the integrity of the forest. Taft ended up firing Roosevelt’s beloved U.S. Forest Service head Gifford Pinchot, who had whistle-blown against the syndicate’s abusive land despoiling.
A fierce battle ensued over Alaska between Roosevelt’s wilderness kingdom view and Taft’s hyper-development philosophy. Roosevelt founded the Bull Moose Party in 1912—the 20th century’s most successful third-party movement—in part over Alaskan land rights. He ended up losing the 1912 presidential election but came in second, defeating Taft, the Republican. Wildlife protection had been an important plank of the Bull Moose effort. America’s various Audubon societies had cheered Roosevelt onward. A movement was now under way to keep Alaska wild—and that meant the caribou that roamed the treeless tundra along the Arctic Ocean.