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The new threat to birds of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Editor’s note: In the May/June 2018 issue of BirdWatching magazine, we published “America’s Serengeti,” a photo essay by Malkolm Boothroyd featuring birds (and other wildlife) of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the vast, 19.6-million-acre wilderness in northeastern Alaska. It is the largest wildlife refuge in the United States and is home to more than 200 bird species. Part of ANWR has been the target of the oil industry for decades. The 2017 tax law included a provision to permit drilling, and the Trump administration has been moving toward allowing drilling ever since. Here, Malkolm provides an update and offers an action that birdwatchers can take to oppose the latest plan. 

The Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is home to Spectacled Eiders, Snowy Owls, Buff-breasted Sandpipers, and dozens of other species of nesting birds. It’s also the birthplace of the Porcupine caribou herd, critical denning habitat for polar bears, and a sacred land to the Gwich’in people. The U.S. government is pushing to drill for oil in the Arctic Refuge, and after an October 23 announcement it’s poised to approve a three-dimensional seismic survey. The plan is to begin the surveys in December.

Until November 6, you can submit your concerns to the Bureau of Land Management. It’s important that opposition to seismic testing gets on the public record. You can email your concerns directly to:

Here are a few points to consider as you’re writing: 

1. Three-dimensional seismic testing is intrusive. Convoys of heavy machinery would crisscross over 500,000 acres of the Coastal Plain, blasting the tundra with 60,000 lbs. of force. Damage from 1980s seismic tests are still visible in the Arctic Refuge, and this survey could leave behind scars that could last for generations. 

2. The Coastal Plain is critical denning habitat for the Southern Beaufort Sea polar bear populations. The best technology for detecting polar bear dens is only about 50 percent accurate, meaning there’s a high probability of seismic survey disturbing undetected dens.

3. In the summer, a helicopter would traverse the Arctic Refuge in search of discarded waste.  It could land and take off up to 600 times, harassing countless birds and caribou in the process.

4. The seismic plan includes camps of up to 180 people and twice-weekly crew changes, yet the seismic plan makes zero mention of Covid-19 or health protocols.

5. The Bureau of Land Management should put the brakes on its reckless push for seismic testing in the Arctic Refuge. The Bureau should prepare a thorough Environmental Impact Statement, hold robust public comment periods, and consult with every impacted community. 

Following is a slideshow of Malkolm’s photos of just some of the birds and other iconic animals of the Arctic Refuge. 


Pacific Loon

Pacific Loon

STARTING A FAMILY: A Pacific Loon incubates eggs alongside a small pond near where the Turner River meets Demarcation Bay, in the northeastern portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Slowing the rush to drill 

Here are three organizations that advocate for the birds and other wildlife of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge:

Audubon Alaska

Arctic Refuge Defense Campaign

Sierra Club

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Malkolm Boothroyd

Malkolm Boothroyd

Malkolm Boothroyd ( is a birder and photographer from Whitehorse, Yukon. At age 15, he and his parents completed a fossil-fuel-free Big Year: an unsupported bicycle journey from the Yukon to Florida that doubled as an environmental and climate-change advocacy project. Ever since, he’s taken on numerous climate change and conservation activism endeavors. He is currently Campaigns Coordinator with the Yukon chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, working to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other important areas in the north.

Malkolm Boothroyd on social media