This past summer, scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society plunged for the first time into a region in the north Alaskan Arctic described by as "one of the wildest areas in the world."
The National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A) sits on the northern-most tip of the state, along the Arctic Ocean and just west of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the largest such refuge in the country. [See images of the wildlife around the reserve .]
Originally created in 1923 for the Navy, the NPR-A is the biggest single piece of public land in the United States, covering an area about the size of Indiana. Three key areas of this wild and untamed region are the Colville River, Teshekpuk Lake and the Utukok River Uplands. These areas of pristine wilderness are some of the biggest Arctic wetlands in the world, are home to some of the last herds of American caribou, and are the nesting ground for rare migratory birds.
"It's one of the world's greatest wildlife places, yet it's off the public radar," said Steve Zack, a conservation scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society and one of the June trip leaders.
And yet the region might not be so wild for long.
The Reserve is as rich in natural resources as it is in wildlife: Estimates are that one-third of the nation's recoverable coal reserves sit beneath the NPR-A, specifically below the Utukok Uplands. The region's hills also hide rare minerals.
Oil giant ConocoPhillips has proposed at least one bridge over the Colville River, to expand oil development, while the state of Alaska is considering expanding some major roads, which would provide better access to the area's resources.
In light of the expected changes ahead, the scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society wanted to get into the area, to gain firsthand knowledge of the region's wildlife. Many of the scientists on the trip had been to the region, but none had been to the Utukok Uplands, an area twice the size of Yellowstone National Park , which they accessed by rafting down the Utukok River.
For eight days, the group of 11 explorers with the WCS team observed the region from their seats upon the river. Their aim was to get a better understanding of the area to help design a program for its future. The team, made of scientists who specialized in migratory birds, musk-oxen, caribou, and wildlife corridors, jotted down information on the location of nesting regions, migration pathways, and animal population densities.
They saw grizzly bears mating, newly born caribou calves and the migration of caribou across the river. They came back with first-hand observations that will help them decide what areas they would like to see protected, and what future research projects might be undertaken. For example, the WCS would like to understand the importance of specific habitats for caribou, as well as the concerns that local hunters have about caribou population.
"This is a battle about balancing priorities, not preventing development, Zack said.
In fact, some balance has just been achieved: Shortly after their return, the Department of the Interior announced it would protect 170,000 acres south and northeast of Teshekpuk Lake in the NPR-A from leasing, while moving ahead with 1.8 million acres for leasing farther south of this region.
"It's the first time recognized by Department of the Interior that there could and should be a balance of wildlife protection and energy development in the NPR-A," Zack said.