Sparing an Arctic Paradise: A New Study Suggests Alaska’s Teshekpuk Lake Is Really Worth Saving

“Santa Claus is real!” That’s what Steve Zack, a  Wildlife Conservation Society scientist, declared in 2009, when the Obama Administration announced it would “hold back” the south margin of Alaska's Teshekpuk Lake from a 1.8 million acre oilfield lease sale. "Hold back" sounds like a mixed message, doesn't it? But it was at least a temporary victory for Zack, who has been studying birds in the region for years. It spared 170,000 acres of crucial wetland habitat.

Since 2,000, there has been increasing pressure to extract oil from the vicinity of Teshekpuk, set within Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve (NPR-A), where a patchwork of over 3 million acres has been leased and drilled since the ’70s. (That tale, and the threat it posed to the yellow-billed loon, one of the reserve’s summer denizens, was featured in Audubon in 2004—and it’s still a good read.) Then in 2006, Bush’s BLM moved aggressively to open up the 219,000-acre lake’s shores to drilling. Environmental groups, including the Wildlife Conservation Society and Audubon Alaska, successfully sued to stop the sale, because the environmental impact statement was incomplete. BLM backed down and decided, in 2008, to defer leasing the 400,000 acres on the north and east edges of the lake for at least 10 years while more information was gathered.

A satellite image of the 22-mile-long Teshekpuk Lake (lower left) and other tundra lakes below the Beaufort Sea (at top). Photo: NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team, via Wikimedia Commons

Zack and others have been doing just that. In fact, he’s the co-author of a study published this month in the journal Arctic that found summer nest density in this area, south of Teshekpuk, is higher than at six other places with similar data on the Alaskan Arctic Coastal Plain (such as the Prudhoe Bay oilfield), including for birds like Lapland longspurs, long-billed dowitchers, and pectoral sandpipers. Additionally, the researchers found that the 1,000-plus nests they monitored over the course of four years were most vulnerable just after the breeding season commenced, which suggests that—should no long-term protection be granted (come on, Santa Claus!)—at the very least the area should be kept quiet during June. But considering the sheer number of birds that rely on Teshekpuk, Zack and others not surprisingly recommend that the 10-year deferral be turned into lasting protection.

A half-million-plus acres may sound like a lot to set aside, but the NPR-A is 23-million acres. In 1923, President Harding designated it an emergency oil supply for (get this) the U.S. Navy, but 50 years later it was tapped to help save our petroleum-intensive way of life. Oil development is tough on any landscape, and the Teshekpuk wetlands are riddled with sensitive tundra lakes that thaw each summer, appearing like puddles after rain. On foot, researchers regularly flush up birds bedded down on their hidden nests. Later in the season, black brant, Canada geese, and greater white-fronted geese use the region as their molting grounds before they head back south ahead of the ice.

As Zack and others well know, Santa Claus may or may not be real—certainly not if he only delivers a 10-year deferral. So they’re betting on science, instead, with their life’s work. And that’s awesome for all of us because Teshekpuk Lake and its surrounding wetlands are a huge source of birds throughout the Americas. Want to see more of this place? Watch this video.