Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, United States

Source: USFWS


Renowned for its wildlife, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is inhabited by 45 species of land and marine mammals, ranging from the pygmy shrew to the bowhead whale. Best known are the polar, grizzly, and black bear, wolf, wolverine, Dall sheep, moose, muskox, and the animal that has come to symbolize the area's wildness, the free-roaming caribou. Thirty-six species of fish occur in Arctic Refuge waters, and 180 species of birds have been observed on the refuge.

caption Arctic Refuge. (Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Eight million acres of the Arctic Refuge are designated Wilderness, and three rivers (Sheenjek, Wind, and Ivishak) are designated Wild Rivers. Two areas of the refuge are designated Research Natural Areas. Because of distinctive scenic and scientific features, several rivers, valleys, canyons, lakes, and a rock mesa have been recommended as National Natural Landmarks.

Perhaps the most unique feature of the refuge is that large-scale ecological and evolutionary processes continue here, free of human control or manipulation. A prominent reason for establishment of the Arctic Refuge was the fact that this single protected area encompasses an unbroken continuum of arctic and subarctic ecosystems. Here, one can traverse the boreal forest of the Porcupine River plateau, wander north up the rolling taiga uplands, cross the rugged, glacier-capped Brooks Range, and follow any number of rivers across the tundra coastal plain to the lagoons, estuaries, and barrier islands of the Beaufort Seas coast, all without encountering an artifact of civilization.

The refuge encompasses the traditional homelands and subsistence areas of Inupiaq Eskimos of the arctic coast and the Athabascan Indians of the interior.

Wildlife and Habitat

The 19.2-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge supports the greatest variety of plant and animal life of any Park or Refuge in the circumpolar arctic. Along the northern boundary of the Refuge, barrier islands, coastal lagoons, salt marshes, and river deltas provide habitat for migratory waterbirds including sea ducks, geese, swans, and shorebirds. Fish such as dolly varden and arctic cisco are found in nearshore waters. Coastal lands and sea ice are used by caribou seeking relief from biting insects during summer, and by polar bears hunting seals and giving birth in snow dens during winter.

The arctic coastal plain stretches southward from the coast to the foothills of the Brooks Range. This area of rolling hills, small lakes, and north-flowing, braided rivers is dominated by tundra vegetation consisting of low shrubs, sedges, and mosses. Caribou travel to the coastal plain during June and July to give birth and raise their young. Migratory birds and insects flourish here during the brief arctic summer. Tens of thousands of snow geese stop here during September to feed before migrating south, and muskoxen live here year-round.

South of the coastal plain, the mountains of the eastern Brooks Range rise to over 9,000 feet. This northernmost extension of the Rocky Mountains marks the continental divide, with north-flowing rivers emptying into the Arctic Ocean and south-flowing rivers joining the great Yukon River. The rugged mountains of the Brooks Range are incised by deep river valleys creating a range of elevations and aspects that support a variety of low tundra vegetation, dense shrubs, rare groves of poplar trees on the north side and spruce on the south. During summer, peregrine falcons, gyrfalcons, and golden eagles build nests on cliffs. Harlequin ducks and red-breasted mergansers are seen on swift-flowing rivers. Dall sheep and wolves are active all year, while grizzly bears and arctic ground squirrels are frequently seen during summer but hibernate in winter.

The southern portion of the Arctic Refuge is within the boreal forest of interior Alaska. Beginning as predominantly treeless tundra with scattered islands of black and white spruce trees, the forest becomes progressively denser as the foothills yield to the expansive flats north of the Yukon River. Frequent forest fires ignited by lightning result in a complex mosaic of birch, aspen, and spruce forests of various ages. Wetlands and south-flowing rivers create openings in the forest canopy. Neotropical migratory birds breed here in spring and summer, attracted by plentiful food and the variety of habitats. Caribou travel here from farther north to spend the winter. Year-round residents of the boreal forest include moose, lynx, marten, wolverines, black and grizzly bears, and wolves.


caption Arctic Refuge. (Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Known to few beyond the Inupiat Eskimos and Athabascan Indians who were the first to live in the area, it was the 1953 Sierra Club Bulletin article, "Northeast Arctic: The Last Great Wilderness," that began the transformation of northeast Alaska into a place internationally recognized as one of the finest examples of wilderness—the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The article's authors, National Park Service planner George Collins and biologist Lowell Sumner, recruited Wilderness Society President Olaus Murie and his wife Margaret into an effort to permanently protect the area. They were joined by many of the era's prominent conservationists, including scientists Starker Leopold, Frank F. Darling, Sigurd Olson, Stewart Brandborg, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, and Wilderness Act author Howard Zahniser. These activists were joined by thousands of other conservationists. Their hard-fought campaign led to establishment of the original Arctic National Wildlife Range in 1960. These visionaries saw the Range as a rare repository of large-scale ecological and evolutionary processes—a place in which all indigenous life-forms could prosper. Refuge founders also extolled the area as a place for more than wildlife and scientific values. Through their efforts, the Refuge was originally established "For the purpose of preserving unique wildlife, wilderness and recreational values..." In 1980 the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act renamed "Range" to "Refuge," increased the total area of the Refuge to nineteen million acres, designated a large portion as Wilderness, expanded the purposes, authorized Congress to consider a portion of the coastal plain for oil and gas development, and designated three Wild Rivers.

Today, the Arctic Refuge continues to exemplify the legal definition of wilderness—an area "where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man."

Management of Lands Added to the Refuge in the 1980s

In December 1980, Congress enacted the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA). This Act added about 9.1 million acres of adjoining public lands to the original 8.9 million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Range, and renamed the whole as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The ANILCA addition extended from the Canada border west to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline corridor and south to the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge. About 1.3 million acres selected by the State of Alaska in the southeast corner of the Refuge, surrounded on three sides by Refuge lands, were not included in the expansion under ANILCA. In 1983, however, the State relinquished these lands. The Secretary of the Interior accepted the State's relinquishment and added them to the Arctic Refuge.

The lands added to the Refuge in the 1980s are currently managed under a "Minimal Management" classification (as identified in the Comprehensive Conservation Plan linked at the bottom of this page), a category intended to maintain existing natural conditions and resource values. These areas are suitable for Wilderness designation, although there are presently no proposals to designate them as Wilderness.

Opportunities for public use are available for subsistence and for a variety of activities such as hunting, fishing, trapping, backpacking, river floating and camping. Traditional motorized access using aircraft, motorboats and snow-machines is allowed. Guiding and outfitting services and related temporary support facilities are permitted. The Service focuses its efforts primarily on maintaining natural conditions and on conducting studies and survey/inventory programs to increase the Refuge's resource database and evaluate public use levels and impacts.

Official Names

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) was created in December 1960 as the "Arctic National Wildlife Range." It held this name until February 29th, 1980 when then-President Jimmy Carter, by Proclamation 4729, changed the official name to "William O. Douglas Arctic Wildlife Range" (notice that the "National" was dropped). That name was only in use for 10 months. When the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act was signed into law in December 1980, the area was officially designated the "Arctic National Wildlife Refuge." So in 1980 the Arctic Refuge had three different official names.

Caribou Fences: People of the Caribou

caption Aerial view of ancient caribou fence. (Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Ancient spruce-log fences hundreds of yards long—lichen-covered and bleached silver with age if they are visible at all—wind through the coniferous forests and across the shrub-tussock meadows of the southern reaches of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. These are the remains of caribou fences, used for perhaps thousands of years but abandoned in the early 1900s—traditions lost in time.

There was rarely enough food in one place to feed a large community, so the people who lived in the area moved as small family groups of nomadic hunters. They ranged widely to find the dispersed food that was available. Calling themselves "People of the Caribou," these Gwich'in Indians quite literally were "of" the caribou. The animals provided most of their sustenance: food; skins for their clothing, bedding and shelter; and the bones from which they fashioned fishhooks, skin scrappers and other tools.

Throughout the long, dark winters, the Gwich'in sought the small groups and individual caribou that might drift through the area. Finding these animals demanded uncomfortable and often hungry months of searching. In some years, the caribou could not be found at all because they were wintering far to the east. In times when alternative foods such as snowshoe hares and ptarmigan were also in low numbers, there was suffering and death among the people.

Each March, the caribou began their journey toward their calving grounds in the distant north. Depending on where the animals began their migration, the caribou passed through certain locations more frequently than others. Over many years of careful observation, the people came to know of these preferred caribou routes.

In some of these sites, the Gwich'in temporarily ceased their independent nomadic ways. They worked together to construct and maintain miles of dispersed caribou fences. Then, if caribou passed near any of these locations, the people again worked together to herd the animals along the fences to corrals where hunters could surprise and kill a number of animals at once. Snares made from caribou rawhide were also used within the enclosures to catch some of the herded caribou. For a while thereafter, there was food and celebration for all.

Now abandoned for a century, caribou fences remind us of the intimate knowledge of caribou movements, and of the hardships and patient efforts of a self-reliant people working together to improve their chances of survival in a harsh northern landscape.

Management Activities

Management activities focus on the stewardship of naturally diverse fish and wildlife resources and the extraordinary wilderness values of the Arctic Refuge. Biologists conduct studies to better understand the status of fish, wildlife and their habitats. Information from surveys of caribou, muskoxen, moose and Dall sheep support recommendations for hunting seasons and allowable harvests by subsistence and sport hunters. Plant communities are monitored for changes associated with disturbance and global climatic conditions.

Recreational use is managed to ensure that the refuge's wild character is preserved. This is accomplished through monitoring visitor use, developing necessary protective provisions, conducting information and education programs, and enforcing regulations.

The 1002 Area, 1.5 million acres of the refuge's coastal plain, has long been a subject of controversy. The area includes habitat important to the porcupine and central arctic caribou herds, as well as many other species. It may also contain significant quantities of oil and gas. In 1980, the U.S. Congress mandated studies of the petroleum potential and biological resources of the area. Today, the refuge conducts ongoing biological studies of the 1002 Area as the development debate continues.

Further Reading

Disclaimer: This article is taken wholly from, or contains information that was originally published by, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Topic editors and authors for the Encyclopedia of Earth may have edited its content or added new information. The use of information from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should not be construed as support for or endorsement by that organization for any new information added by EoE personnel, or for any editing of the original content.



(2008). Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, United States. Retrieved from


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