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The Western Arctic

The Western Arctic

The western Arctic lies at the northern edge of Alaska, west of the Arctic Refuge and Prudhoe Bay, and below the Arctic Ocean in the north. (See a pdf map of the region here.) The western Arctic accounts for 35 million acres, the majority of which comprise the 23.5-million-acre National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, the largest unprotected block of land in the federal land system. Read more about how the Reserve got its name.

The western Arctic is an area of varied topography that ranges from coastal lagoons in the north to rugged mountains in the south. Its varied ecosystems and habitats support a diversity of fish and wildlife, including large populations of grizzly and polar bear, muskox and caribou, arctic fox and wolves, seals and bowhead whales, and several species of anadromous fish. The coastal lagoons and plain, tundra wetlands, and lakes provide extremely valuable nesting, staging, feeding, and molting areas for millions of waterfowl, sea and shorebirds, including yellow-billed loons, Pacific black brant, spectacled and Steller's eiders, and sandpipers.

Local residents, mainly Inupiat, who have lived there for centuries, continue to live close to the land in this region, depending on wildlife and other resources to sustain their families.

How the NPR-A Got Its Name

For the last several millennia and before European settlers began arriving in the nineteenth century, the western Arctic was home to plentiful wildlife, Inupiat Eskimos, and other Arctic peoples.

In 1923, President Warren Harding decided to set aside a portion of the western Arctic as an oil reserve for the United States Navy, calling it the Naval Petroleum Reserve No.4. Since that time, however, no oil development has occurred in the reserve and only sporadic exploration activity has affected the region.

In 1976, Congress recognized the unique wilderness and wildlife values of the reserve and transferred its management to the Department of the Interior. The area was also renamed the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. Congress provided special protection for sensitive ecosystems in the area, including Teshekpuk Lake and the Colville River. Congress then directed the Secretary of the Interior to study the many values of the area and put off making any decisions about the future of the reserve.

Since 1976, Congress has allowed some limited oil leasing in the area (however all leases granted in the 1980s have expired) and considered bills that would turn the reserve into a national wildlife refuge but no final action was taken. Now, even though Congress has never resolved the question of protection for the key regions within the reserve, the Bush administration is pursuing aggressive development of the reserve threatening these pristine public lands, and the wildlife and people depending on them.

Protecting the Most Sensitive Areas

The various legal actions taken by Earthjustice and its clients in the western Arctic focus on protecting the most sensitive areas, and their key values, from oil and gas development. These areas include:

Teshekpuk River Region, including the Dease Inlet-Meade River  

  • Coastal lagoons, deep-water lakes, wet sedge grass meadows, braided streams.
  • Critical habitat for internationally significant populations of Pacific black brant as well as king, spectacled, and Steller's eiders, northern pintails, long-tailed ducks, tundra swans, rare yellow-billed loons, peregrine falcons, and many more.
  • Calving ground for the 45,000 Teshekpuk caribou herd. Polar bears roam the coast.
  • Inupiat have used this area for subsistence for thousands of years.

Colville River Watershed

  • The wild Colville is the largest river on Alaska's North Slope. Home to caribou, moose, brown bears, and over 20 species of fish.
  • River cliffs and banks support high-density nesting populations of raptors, including gyrfalcons, Arctic peregrine, and rough-legged falcons. The Colville River delta supports the highest nesting densities of greater white-fronted geese in the western Arctic and nearly half of all the nesting black brant in the region.

Peard Bay

  • Located along the Chukchi Sea coast, Peard Bay encompasses a network of lakes, ponds, streams, river deltas, and wet and moist tundra.
  • Important habitat for waterfowl and shorebirds, including ducks, geese, threatened spectacled eider, as well as for yellow-billed loons and buff-breasted sandpipers. Known denning area for polar bears.

Kasegaluk Lagoon

  • One of the largest coastal lagoons in the world featuring high concentrations of polar bears and a great diversity of avian species, including black brant and other waterfowl.
  • Contains the most important summer habitat for beluga whales and spotted seals in the northeast Chukchi Sea. As many as 3,500 belugas concentrate in the area each year.

Ikpikpuk River Region

  • Key nesting site for peregrine falcons and habitat for fish.