Press Room

Spoiler Alert: Drilling and Wildlife Cannot Coexist in the Arctic Refuge

In an area as ecologically sensitive as the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge, there is no such thing as a “small” footprint.

WASHINGTON — Tomorrow, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee (SENR) will hold a hearing to mark up the legislation introduced last week by Senator Lisa Murkowski, the SENR chair, to open Area 1002 of the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development.

In response to this legislation, the National Audubon Society issued the following response:

“There is no such thing as a wilderness oilfield. You’ve either got wilderness or you’ve got an oilfield,” said Stan Senner, Audubon’s VP of bird conservation. “The Senate’s bill to open the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge to drilling is completely incompatible with the purpose of a wildlife refuge. The Arctic Refuge is one the most important places in North America for birds that migrate all across the United States and to five other continents.”

Last week, 37 Arctic wildlife scientists sent a letter to Senator Murkowski and Senator Maria Cantwell, the chair and ranking member respectively of the SENR, to oppose oil and gas development in an area that, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, “provides for a greater degree of ecological diversity than any other similar sized area of Alaska’s north slope.” The letter outlined threats to wildlife from oil and gas drilling based on a report from the National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences.

Facts about developing the Arctic Refuge for oil and gas:

  • Three-dimensional seismic surveys require a high spatial density of trails. “Seismic exploration can damage vegetation and cause erosion, especially along stream banks.” •
  • The effects of roads, pads, pipelines, and other infrastructure extend far beyond the physical footprint itself, and the distances at which impacts occur vary with the environmental component affected. “Effects on hydrology, vegetation, and animal populations occur at distances up to several kilometers…”
  • “Roads have had effects as far-reaching and complex as any physical component of the North Slope oil fields.”
  • Denning polar bears are among the animals that “have been affected by industrial activities on the North Slope.”
  • Readily available food supplies in the oil fields attract higher-than-normal densities of predators, which then prey on birds and their eggs and young. The reproductive success rate of some bird species in the developed parts of oil fields “has been reduced to the extent that it is insufficient to balance mortality.”
  • The spread of industrial activity, especially to the east where the coastal plain is narrower than elsewhere [i.e., the Arctic Refuge], “would likely result in reductions in reproductive success” for caribou.

Despite claims to limit oil and gas “footprint” to 2,000 acres, the flora and fauna of the Arctic Refuge would suffer. The impacts from necessary roads, pipelines, gravel mines and additional development are not included in the “direct footprint.” These “indirect” impacts would nearly quadruple the proposed footprint acreage in Senator Murkowski’s legislation. (Graphic detailing possible footprint available for download here.)

To learn more about what Arctic wildlife scientists have to say about drilling in the Arctic Refuge, please read these interviews by Hannah Waters, Audubon’s senior web editor.

More than 200 species of birds, including the Red-throated Loon, Snowy Owl and Northern Pintail, depend on the Arctic Refuge. Many migrate through six continents and all 50 states to breed in the Refuge. The Refuge is an iconic American treasure on par with the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone and Yosemite. First protected by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, leaders from both parties have worked together for generations to stop attempts to open the biological heart of the Refuge—its pristine coastal plain—to oil and gas drilling. (Maps available for download herehere and here.)

Audubon is asking its one million members and supporters to contact their members of Congress and urge them to protect the Arctic Refuge from future development. 

The National Audubon Society protects birds and the places they need, today and tomorrow, throughout the Americas using science, advocacy, education and on-the-ground conservation. Audubon's state programs, nature centers, chapters and partners have an unparalleled wingspan that reaches millions of people each year to inform, inspire and unite diverse communities in conservation action. Since 1905, Audubon's vision has been a world in which people and wildlife thrive. Audubon is a nonprofit conservation organization. Learn more how to help at and follow us on Twitter and Instagram at @audubonsociety.

Contact: Nicolas Gonzalez,, (212) 979-3100.


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