Refuge, Wilderness and Restoration After the Trauma of War

K Bay from Homer SPotocky

Just one of Homer, Alaska’s stunning views. Photo by Shauna Potocky.

By Shauna Potocky

Volcanoes rise out of the mist and gray mirror of the Alaskan sea as the arrival of Fall storms bring rain and cold winds. Born out of the Ring of Fire, islands form the volcanic chain of mountains and ridges that define the West Coast of Alaska and make up the Aleutian Islands, which provide remote habitat for an impressive number of birds and marine mammals.

Alaska’s coastline, including the Aleutian Islands, provides an impressive array of opportunity for a diverse range of species. From mudflats to rugged rocky outcroppings, sandy beaches or cobbled shores, the diversity of landscapes are as engaging as the animals found upon them. Some of these areas are easy to visit while others are incredibly remote, yet all of it comes to life through the story of its conservation.

As recognizable as this landscape is on the map, and as remote as much of it may be, what might be more elusive is the story of its protection. Much of the Aleutian Islands as well as significant amounts of Alaskan coastline are protected and designated as the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. Its story steeped in lore, history and war comes to life at the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center and Refuge headquarters in Homer, Alaska—a town famously known for being “at the end of the road.”

Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center close up SPotocky

The Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center located in Homer, brings the story of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge into incredible focus for visitors. Photo by Shauna Potocky.

It seems timely to revisit the story of the refuge, particularly the Aleutian Islands, because as the world faces war and human displacement today. This story serves as an important reminder of what war does, and how in the face of conflict wildlife and the environment become remarkably vulnerable and often go unprotected. The story of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge demonstrates what can be accomplished once all the turmoil ends.

The great islands that make up the Aleutian chain and other areas of the current refuge were first utilized and inhabited by people for what is estimated to be over 11,000 years ago. Today, a rich diversity of first peoples, including the Inupiat, Yup’ik, Unangan, Aleut, Dena’ina Athabascans, Alutiiq Koniag, Haida and Tlingit, continue to be deeply connected to this landscape. Their lives are filled with the knowledge of specialized skills, culture, and stories of this unique place.

Beginning in the late 1700s, expanding into the 1800s, these people were affected or displaced by an insurgence of Russian fur hunters. Russian settlements were focused on resource extraction and, once established, their skills and appetite, fed by the fur trade, depleted the area of several marine mammal species, resulting in an awaking.

Fox fur and trap SPotocky

Non-native species, such as foxes, were introduced to the islands, resulting in significant impacts to native species. Foxes were introduced in order to establish and grow fur trading operations and are a significant part of the story on display at the visitor center.  Photo by Shauna Potocky.

Due to the decline of sea otters and other marine mammals, Russians began restricting areas for hunting, essentially setting up refuge areas in order to assure the survival of species they depended on.

In 1867, Alaska was purchased from Russia by the United States. American hunting, development and extraction ensued. Over the course of generations, Alaska was opened for exploration, hunting, fur trade and adventure.

Then something unbelievable unfolded—an event that would mark a moment in time and the world’s history.

In 1942, during World War II, the Japanese began a campaign to take the Attu and Kiska Islands of the Aleutian chain. This followed actions in defiance of a fur hunting treaty and escalating tensions. Once the insurgence began it displaced island populations and included taking a number of native people hostage. This conflict launched the Aleutian Campaign in which Allied troops and military operations ensued on the islands and in the surrounding areas. The islands were horribly affected. Island populations were displaced, communities destroyed, bombs and ammunition rounds unleashed, military operations and encampments established, while contaminants and military waste were discarded and left behind after the war effort.

In the end, the landscape and islands were left ravaged and damaged, scarred with the remnants of bombshells and littered with abandoned waste. They stood in disarray; masses of twisted metal, discarded ammunition, contaminants and a newly raw history of war lay in its wake.

War items on exhibit SPotocky

Remants of war on display at the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center. Photo by Shauna Potocky.

In Alaska the tides are dramatic—a deep pulling out and heaving in, over great distances and heights, similar to a great pendulum swing. Just as remarkable as the tide and its swift sweeping change, the future of this landscape began to emerge into something new, something with wider protections and a future. In the end, something positive is emerging out of the turmoil.

Wildlife refuges and wilderness areas protected significant tracks of land and habitat along the coastline of Alaska. In 1980, via the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), signed by President Jimmy Carter, astounding areas of Alaska’s protected lands, along with newly protected areas, including the Aleutian Islands, were consolidated and established as part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.

Refuge view in Homer SPotocky

Located at the base of the visitor center is a small wildlife refuge area that allows visitors to see the land-sea connection. Photo by Shauna Potocky.

In total the refuge encompasses approximately three million acres, with a mission to conserve habitats and species, manage international treaties related to the habitats and species, as well as provide for local subsistence. The refuge is also used to conduct scientific research and maintain water quality in ways that support the primary role of the refuge.

Today, people carrying out the mission of the refuge are working to repair the damage, specifically on islands that have been touched by fur trade or war. There is significant work being done to remove invasive species, such as rats and foxes, that were introduced to the islands. These introduced species out-compete, destroy and kill native species by eating the eggs of nesting birds, killing young and upsetting the balance of an ecosystem that initially developed without the presence of land-based predators.

Exhibit displays SPotocky

Exhibits bring the story, restoration, research and habitats to life for visitors. Photo by Shauna Potocky.

In addition, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service is focused on removing contaminants as well as accumulations of waste and debris that were left on the islands during wartime.

Today, the incredible acreage of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge protects diverse habitat for millions of seabirds and an wide array of marine mammals, while doing something even bigger. With respect to the Aleutian Islands, it serves as an example of what protection, restoration and conservation can look like after truly troubling times. It proves that war is not the end.

Intertidal display SPotocky

Detail of intertidal display in the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center. Photo by Shauna Potocky.

What the refuge represents to me is that after the conflict is over, when the heartbreak and battles are done, we can choose to pick up the pieces and do something bigger, do something positive. We can take all that seemed broken and left behind, the battle scars, the waste, the heartbreak of war and repair it. Collectively and carefully, damaged landscapes can once again become incredible habitat or a place people can feel comfortable calling home.

Advertisements

Being Human, Being Caribou and Being Wild

Calving Grounds

The Wilderness Act was signed into law in 1964 by Lyndon B. Johnson. Therefore, this year we celebrated the 50th anniversary of a law which created the National Wilderness Preservation System and recognized wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” The Act further defined wilderness as “an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions.” One of our authors, Shauna Potocky wrote about the history of The Wilderness Act recently, Celebrating Wilderness: The 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act.

During the winter holiday season, my attention is drawn to a beast that receives considerable protection under The Wilderness Act in some, but not all, of its range. Reindeer, caribou, or Rangifer tarandus….by any of these names is still the same magical, hearty and wondrously unique species of cervid. It is the type of animal whose existence gratifies the primal and more complicated regions of my brain as only pack animals and other beasts of burden do. The wild of this species inhabit the last undeveloped frontiers of this small planet and serve as an important food source for many tribal communities, while the domesticated of this species are vital pack animals. If you view this as I do, you realize the delicately intertwined relationship between humans and caribou can help to insure the survival of both.

Domesticated caribou are known as reindeer. Caribou are well designed for Arctic conditions with a double-layered coat and large, concave hooves that function as snowshoes because they spread widely to provide support in tundra and also serve as paddles while swimming.  They are the only deer species in which both the male (bull) and female (cow) grow antlers, though the bulls possess much larger, massive, antlers than females.  Cows shed their antlers later in the season than bulls, in theory so they still have them for protecting calves.  Only cows still have antlers as late as December. (So all of Santa’s reindeer are probably cows.)

Line of Caribou bulls swimming. Photo courtesy of National Park Service

Line of Caribou swimming.
Photo courtesy of National Park Service

The world population of caribou is five million, and approximately 950,000 wild caribou live in Alaska.  Caribou range includes North America, Greenland and Northern Europe to Northern Asia in habitats including the Arctic tundra and adjacent boreal forest.  The Porcupine Caribou Herd, which is distributed in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Yukon and the Northwest territories of Alaska, has a range largely protected under The Wilderness Act.

Many other animals are protected as well. The coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the northernmost destination of millions of birds from more than 130 species and comprises the most important onshore denning habitat for the entire Beaufort Sea polar bear population.  Musk oxen, wolverines, foxes, golden eagles, and snowy owls gather on the coastal plain to hunt and den every year.

In 1980, President Carter signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act which doubled the size of the Arctic Range and renamed it the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The entire refuge was designated as wilderness with one key exception: Section 1002 of the Act, a last minute compromise to ensure the bill passed, outlined additional research that would be needed before Congress could designate the area as wilderness. The “1002 lands” as this 1.5 million acre parcel is known, formed the most important part of the herd’s habitat and the core of their calving grounds, but were also suspected of harboring vast reserves of oil. In 1984, the Canadian government, in cooperation with the Inuvialuit people, protected their portion of the caribou calving grounds by establishing Ivvavik National Park adjacent to the Arctic Refuge. Vuntut National Park, also in the Yukon, was created a few years later in co-operation with the Vuntut Gwich’in First Nation, thereby protecting vital spring, summer and fall habitat for the herd on the Canadian side.

In April 2003, two adventurers followed the Porcupine Caribou migration. They traveled on foot with the 123,000-member herd from wintering to calving grounds in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and back again, traveling for a total of five months. When they completed the journey, they shared their story and findings with everyone who would listen in Washington D.C.  Their story is remarkable, but not nearly as remarkable as that of the Porcupine Caribou herd. Their documentary is available to watch online and I have embedded it below. After you watch it, I think you will agree that the calving grounds deserve designation as a wild place, now and forever, and should always be protected from oil drilling.

The Sacred Place Where Life Begins

Line of Caribou bulls swimming. Photo courtesy of National Park Service

Line of Caribou bulls swimming.
Photo courtesy of National Park Service

In the developed world, we are accustomed to grocery stores, drive-through windows and internet access providing instant gratification and an abundance of resources at our beck and call.  Modern conveniences are fantastic and easily taken for granted.  However, there are still communities on this tiny planet whose survival is tightly enmeshed with survival of the local wildlife.

The Gwich’in are the northernmost Indian Nation living in fifteen small villages in an area extending from northeast Alaska to the northern Yukon and Northwest Territories in Canada. Nine thousand Gwich’in people make their home on or near the migratory route of the Porcupine Caribou Herd, and have depended on caribou (Rangifer tarandus) for more than 10,000 years, according to their oral history.  Caribou still provide food, clothing, tools, and are an important component of the spirituality for Gwich’in.  The word “Gwich’in” means “people of the land.”

Domesticated caribou are also known as reindeer.  Well designed for Arctic conditions, caribou have a double-layered coat, one layer with straight tubular hairs known as a guard coat and another wooly undercoat.  Caribou usually have dark legs and a dewlap and long white hair along the throat.  They possess large, concave hooves that function as snowshoes and also spread widely to provide support in tundra and serve as paddles while swimming.  They are the only cervidae (deer species) in which both the male (bull) and female (cow) grow antlers, though the bulls possess much larger, even massive, antlers than females.  Cows shed their antlers later in the season than bulls, in theory so they still have them for protecting calves.  Only cows still have antlers as late as December. (So all of Santa’s reindeer are probably cows.)

The world population of caribou is five million and approximately 950,000 wild caribou live in Alaska.  Caribou range includes North America, Greenland and Northern Europe to Northern Asia in habitats including the Arctic tundra and adjacent boreal forest.  However, the Gwich’in are dependent specifically upon the Porcupine Caribou Herd, which is distributed in the Artic National Wildlife Refuge, Yukon and the Northwest territories of Alaska.

The Porcupine Caribou Herd numbers approximately 123,000 and is named for the major river within its range.  The herd migrates twice per year to its traditional calving grounds, a 700 mile round trip to and from the arctic coastal plain.  The specific route the caribou take depends on snow and weather conditions.

Calving Grounds

Pregnant females reach the calving areas along the coastal plain by early June and give birth.  The remaining herd joins the cows and calves soon afterwards.  Here, the herd remains for most of the summer because the coastal plain is integral to survival for two main reasons.  First, there are far less predators such as brown bears, wolves and golden eagles.  Secondly, the vegetation in the coastal plain is abundant and readily meets the nutritional needs of pregnant and nursing cows.

The Gwich’in call the coastal plain “Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit” (The Sacred Place Where Life Begins). The Gwich’in formed the Gwich’in Steering Committee in 1988 in response to proposals to drill for oil in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  Recognizing that oil development threatened the caribou calving grounds, the Gwich’in people called upon the chiefs of all Gwich’in villages to come together for the first time in more than a century.  At this gathering, it was decided unanimously to speak with one voice against oil and gas development in the birthing and nursing grounds of the Porcupine Caribou Herd.

The Gwich’in Steering Committee has presented testimony in front of the US Congress, the United Nations Special Rappatoire on Indigenous Peoples, and public hearings.  Their activities have helped in the ongoing preservation of calving grounds to date.  You may witness the 2011 testimony of Sarah James, Board Member and Spokesman of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, during the 2011 House Committee hearings on jobs and drilling in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge at the C-Span Video Library.

But the Gwich’in are helping to protect far more than caribou.  The Arctic Refuge possesses an unrivaled diversity of habitats and abundance of wildlife.  The coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the northernmost destination of millions of birds from more than 130 species and comprises the most important onshore denning habitat for the entire Beaufort Sea polar bear population.  Musk oxen, wolverines, foxes, golden eagles, and snowy owls gather on the coastal plain to hunt and den every year.

In the film, The Sacred Place where Life Begins- Gwich’in Women Speak, several generations of females in the Gwich’in tribe eloquently remind us how every living thing is connected and how they intend to protect that precious balance. With continued activism by the Gwich’in and other environmental stewards, these grounds will remain protected for many more generations.