Alaska’s last vast wild place is open for drilling. Will the birds survive?

A female snowy owl lands at its nest as its mate watches, holding a lemming captured for its nestlings. PHOTOGRAPH BY KILIII YÜYAN

In late June our floatplane lifted off from Deadhorse, Alaska, at the top of the state, and arrowed west. As it gained altitude the industrial spraddle of the Prudhoe Bay oil field shrank beneath the plane’s pontoons. Soon there was nothing below but land the color of wet cardboard, an earth still waking from its long winter.

About 110 miles to the west, the plane skidded down on a half-frozen lake. We pitched our tents and ringed the camp with an electrified bear fence against curious grizzlies. Then, Martin Robards and Peter Detwiler—a scientist and a senior field technician for the Wildlife Conservation Society, respectively—headed out across the tundra. Robards wore a Remington 870 shotgun slung over his shoulder (bears, again).

The tundra was treeless and stretched until the eye watered. What appeared to be solid land was either as soft as a cheap mattress, or the consistency of pudding. Detwiler wore hip boots; Robards, fishing waders.

They were looking for birds.

The men were standing on the biggest patch of public real estate you’ve never heard of: the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, or NPR-A. The reserve is the single largest piece of public land in the United States. Every spring, ducks, geese, owls, and shorebirds of every kind—millions of them—descend from all corners of the planet to rest, mingle, mate, lay eggs, and raise chicks, before dispersing once more around the world. For birds, it has been called “Heathrow at the top of the world.” The entire Coastal Plain of Alaska has the densest concentration of birds in the Arctic.

As the Trump administration continues to push for more oil and gas extraction on public lands, the petroleum reserve is on the cusp of profound change. The week’s trip for this two-man research crew was the start of a years-long project to detail precisely what bird life is here and how it uses the place, and to try to guage what such change would mean. 09-10-19

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