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Cry of the Loon

The elusive yellow-billed loon defines the wild spirit of the western Arctic. It's also just one of the many creatures threatened by oil and gas development on this land. As biologists hurry to learn which parts of Alaska's National Petroleum Reserve should be protected, the future of these species may rest in their hands.

By Jeff Fair

A loon's wail breaks the silence beneath the wide Arctic sky, a cry almost wolflike, with the tenor of a bassoon in its upper ranges, or of a strong wind whistling through telegraph wires across a Dakota prairie. It's early July, and I'm lying flat upon the soft sphagnum tundra to avoid being seen from the lake. My colleague is hiding behind a low hill half a mile away with a view of our operation. His voice crackles over the radio: "Count to 10 and fire." Ten seconds later I press a button on the radio control, and down by the lake the spring of a hoop trap flips its delicate mesh over a yellow-billed loon that has just returned to its nest. I sprint to the lakeshore and spread a blanket over the bird to calm its struggle until the airplane can retrieve us. Moments later I am holding, in calloused human hands, the wildest spirit of the North.

The yellow-billed loon: Gavia adamsii to scientists, Tuullik to the Inupiaq people who share its landscape and once knew this bird intimately, eating its eggs and using its skin for ceremonial parkas and insulated food pouches. Some Inupiaq heard an augury of death in Tuullik's calls, or forecast the weather according to the direction Tuullik took on its morning flight.

The yellow-billed loon closely resembles its first cousin, the common loon, with its striking chessboard plumage, garnet eyes, haunting calls, and similar nesting behaviors. But its bill is distinctive. Unlike the common loon's black, chisellike beak, the yellow-bill's glows bright as ivory. Carried slightly upraised, it lends the bird an air of pride, say some observers. Breeding is confined to the tundra lakes and brief summers of the high north. Pairs commonly nest along the first narrow margins of open water, barely, but not always, fledging their chicks before the waters freeze back over in September. They appear to concentrate on certain clusters of lakes, although no one knows why these are selected, how breeding pairs interact, or why each year many pairs fail to nest.

"It's amazing to find yourself in an unbelievable landscape with no one around for hundreds of miles, kneeling, holding this spirited gift that makes our earth even more interesting."
Jeff Fair, writer and field biologist
Photograph by Andrew Geiger

Wary, reclusive, and secretive, yellow-billed loons are known to disappear at the approach of a single biologist a mile away. These birds are hard to find, difficult to study, tough even to count. We do know they are rare: The worldwide breeding population may number fewer than 17,000. Because of vulnerability to habitat loss and human disturbance, the yellow-billed loon is included on the Audubon WatchList as a species of global concern. About 2,400 yellow-bills, one-seventh of the world's population, breed here in Alaska's western Arctic—on the very lands now being opened to industrial development.

We are west of the lower Ikpikpuk River, deep within the National Petroleum Reserve–Alaska. The NPR-A, at 23.5 million acres, is the largest block of public land in the nation. While the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, to the east, has been widely celebrated for its stunning wildlife and hotly debated as a potential source of oil, the NPR-A has remained relatively anonymous. Yet it supports at least twice the number of calving caribou as the Arctic refuge, phenomenal numbers of nesting and molting waterfowl, and most of the U.S. Arctic's nesting yellow-bills. And, as the name petroleum reserve might suggest, this area is already being exploited to help fill America's gas tanks. With leasing and exploratory drilling well under way, biologists across the western Arctic are hurrying to gather what information they can in hopes of softening industrial development's effects on the region's wildlife.

As a field biologist who has studied and celebrated loons for 26 years, I cannot say I am proud to be holding our wild quarry. Trapping this innocent creature at its nest and burdening it with technology seems far too intrusive, almost irreverent. But this is where our addiction to oil and our quest for conservation have intersected. Kneeling here upon the Arctic tundra, clutching the very voice of this landscape in my hands, it strikes me that, in a larger way, we Americans now hold the wild spirit of our final wilderness in the grips of our industry and science. My indelicate act is a metaphor of our role in conservation history.

We have come by Cessna floatplane to this place some 60 miles southeast of Barrow, in the heart of the yellow-billed loon's breeding grounds, to outfit seven more nesting yellow-bills with satellite transmitters. We tagged five in the summer of 2002 about 40 miles southeast of here. Joel Schmutz, a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) wildlife research biologist and the leader of this study, plans to find out, for the first time ever, where these birds spend their winters and whether they, like common loons, return to nest at the same lakes each year. We already know that yellow-bills are especially vulnerable to egg predation, changes in the water levels of nesting lakes, spills of crude oil and diesel fuel, and the loss of the fish they feed on—and that all of these problems can result from oil development. Understanding the loons' fidelity to specific lakes will offer some insight into which habitats are most critical to the survival of this species, so that industry might avoid these places.

There is little question that large-scale development will occur here. President Warren G. Harding designated the area a Naval Petroleum Reserve in 1923; in 1977 the land came under the stewardship of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in the U.S. Department of the Interior. It was then renamed a "national" reserve (although recently passed legislation allows any Alaskan oil, even from a national reserve, to be exported to other countries).

Since 1977 there have been several rounds of leasing, but the biggest came in 1998 during the Clinton administration. Under pressure to allow some access to federal lands, the BLM opened to oil leasing much of the reserve's Northeast Planning Area—4.6 million acres, just east of here, that include prime yellow-bill nesting areas.

Every new piece of infrastructure, from oil rigs to roadways, paves the way for further expansion. The land upon which we now stand is part of the Northwest Planning Area, and by the time this article is published, the BLM will have chosen to open its 8.8 million acres to yet more leasing while weakening environmental safeguards. This is a huge and aggressive bite, an uncompromising decision that will undermine the ecology and threaten the future of wildlife that has thrived here for millennia. Once leases are awarded and exploratory drilling begins, there'll be no turning back. The BLM estimates that 9 billion barrels of oil lie under the NPR-A, with some of the richest and most tempting pools of it right here, beneath the heart of yellow-billed loon breeding grounds.

"Loons nest in a beautiful, pristine location. I wonder if they can keep coming back to that same spot each summer, or if one year there will be an oil well there that will change their lives."
Joel Schmutz, federal wildlife biologist
Photograph by Andrew Geiger

Seismic exploration, to first identify the most favorable geology for oil, has already begun. From the air we've seen the wide swaths of vegetation crushed down by huge Caterpillar-drawn trains; these machines crisscross the wilderness on winter snows that are often too thin to protect the layer of life beneath. Caches of fuel drums litter the landscape. We observed one of the Cat-trains, brightly painted and standing out like a circus in the middle of nowhere, parked by a BLM airstrip. Such changes creep ever westward.

Base camp is located in a field of Arctic poppies by the shore of a large lake near the Topagoruk River. It consists of four tents and a cooking area set far off down the lakeshore, should a grizzly find it tempting. The largest tent, a stout, gray cubicle dubbed the Bomb Shelter by its maker, serves as the operating room. Dan Mulcahy, a USGS veterinarian, surgically implants the transmitters; loons and other birds that dive underwater for fish cannot tolerate the drag of an external device. Mulcahy employs extraordinary antiseptic precautions and monitors each loon's heart rate with an esophageal stethoscope, which amplifies the sound of its heartbeats. His careful proficiency blunts the edge of the guilt I feel.

The 2002 study, in which five yellow-bills were tagged, goes a long way toward justifying our intervention. All of the birds tagged that summer migrated in a straight line to the Yellow Sea off China. These loons spend two-thirds of their lives in overfished Asian waters that receive the pollution—oil, inorganic phosphorus and nitrogen, heavy metals—produced by 10 percent of the world's human population. Adding industrial pressure to the loons' breeding grounds could leave these birds with no safe haven at either end of their migrations. It could tip the ecological scales toward their extirpation.

As we fly the newly tagged loon back to its nesting lake, we notice hundreds, perhaps thousands, of waterfowl swirling about in huge, excited flocks on some of the larger lakes below us. Their reproductive responsibilities completed, the ducks and geese are homing in on Teshekpuk Lake and its nearby wetlands to molt and stage for autumn migration. The NPR-A's Teshekpuk Lake Special Area, 40 miles to the east, comprises the most sensitive and productive wetland ecosystem in the U.S. Arctic and the most significant waterfowl molting habitat on the Arctic coasts of Asia and North America. One-fifth of the world's Pacific black brant migrate here from two continents to molt. But there's oil under Teshekpuk, too, and an administration in Washington thirsty to pipe it south.

Resource exploitation is always costly to wildlife, but this is especially true in the western Arctic's fragile habitats. Spectacled and Steller's eiders, both federally threatened species that already lose a fair number of eggs to natural predators, may lose even more eggs to growing populations of Arctic foxes that are enticed here by human garbage. Peregrine falcons and gyrfalcons may be driven from their river-bluff clutches by the wholesale excavation of gravel from riverbeds, and polar bears from their dens by the clamor of Cat-trains running winter seismic trails. The disruption of migration routes would affect not only caribou and the Inupiaq subsistence hunters who depend on them but grizzlies, wolves, and wolverines as well. And just imagine the potential consequences of another Exxon Valdez on the ringed seals and belugas of inshore waters, or on the loons and seabirds that migrate through these areas. Cleaning up Arctic oil spills has proven difficult to impossible, especially in broken ice.

This is not merely conjecture. In March 2003 the National Academy of Sciences released a study of the cumulative environmental effects of current oil and gas developments across Alaska's North Slope. It reported direct mortality, displacement, and reduced reproductive rates of various bird species; diversion of bowhead whale and caribou migrations; adulteration of habitat, wildland values, and vistas across a landscape larger than Rhode Island; little restoration of affected habitats; too few "benchmark" areas, free of industrial presence, for scientific comparison with affected habitats; and fuzzy, potentially conflicting state and federal laws. Overall, the study estimates, restoration of the North Slope could cost at least $4 billion and as much as $9 billion, and just who would foot that bill is unclear.

It might be possible, to some extent, to find a medium between industry and the wild Arctic. Thorough research and sensitive planning can mitigate much of the damage. Once critical habitats like the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area and yellow-billed loon breeding lakes have been identified, these places could be permanently withdrawn from leasing. Certain industrial activities might be confined to seasons when the wildlife most disturbed by these activities has migrated away. But such a thoughtful approach now depends upon BLM efforts and the intentions of Interior Secretary Gale Norton. At this writing, the BLM has reneged on its promise to monitor industrial effects here and has retired its scientific advisory team, a committee of Arctic biologists convened to figure out critical research needs. And Norton is considering rolling back habitat protections in the sensitive Teshekpuk Lake Special Area—an area that even James Watt, Ronald Reagan's controversial Interior Secretary, and Bruce Babbitt, his successor under Bill Clinton, agreed should be off-limits because of its importance to molting geese. Such intentions appear neither sensitive nor promising.

Tonight Schmutz and I capture the study's final loon, No. 12. This bird is so wary that before it will return to its nest, where we have carefully hidden the hoop trap, the pilot has to move the airplane from a neighboring lake and fly out of sight.

Back at base camp, I stand in what feels like midmorning sunshine—it's actually 11:30 p.m.—gazing out across the last great American prairie. From somewhere around a point of land, a pair of tundra swans appears, twin spots of bright, warm life in a harsh and beatific land. A Pacific loon's caterwauling yodel rings across the lake. A yellow-bill responds in a similar but different language, deeper and more plangent, from a place we cannot see.

We've no idea what correlations exist between the yellow-billed loons and their neighbors, let alone what reciprocity we ourselves might establish with them. We have much to learn. But we know enough right now to establish a strong conservation balance across the NPR-A. In the meantime, we demand a lot from these creatures. We expect them to tolerate our industry, and we draft them into service for our research, for scientific analysis, and ultimately for their own protection.

When the loon song quiets, I hear a solemn drumbeat emanating from the direction of the Bomb Shelter. It is the living pulse of a loon's heart, wild and innocent and tenacious. Amplified so, it sounds for all the world like the heartbeat of the land itself—the very spirit of this last frontier—which we endeavor to keep alive in the face of our own intrusions.

Writer and field biologist Jeff Fair has studied loons from Maine to the farthest reaches of Alaska for more than a quarter-century. His essays have appeared in Natural History, Equinox, Alaska magazine, and Appalachia, where he is a contributing editor.

All or Nothing

The National Petroleum Reserve–Alaska is 23.5 million acres of mountains, foothills, and wide coastal plain—spectacular and vital habitat for a whole slew of Arctic species, from yellow-billed loons to caribou and grizzly bears. Beneath it stretch wide bands of oil, natural gas, and coal, whose extraction is directly at odds with wildlife.

Since its designation 80 years ago, most of this vast, remote region has remained overwhelmingly wild. Though that may still be true today, the pace of industrial activity there is accelerating rapidly. Six years ago the door to the Northeast Planning Area was swung wide open when 87 percent of its 4.6 million acres was opened to oil leasing. This past November the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), under the Bush administration, far outdid itself, recommending that the entire 8.8-million-acre Northwest Planning Area be opened to leasing as well. Just 1.5 million acres within it have been spared—and only for a period of 10 years.

The BLM claims it considered public opinion, but it's hard to see how. Audubon Alaska had formulated a Wildlife Habitat Alternative, based on an intensive 18-month study led by senior scientist John Schoen, which was submitted to the agency before the public-comment period. Although the plan acknowledged many areas that could be yielded to industry, it also identified "hot spots" so important to wildlife that they should be unconditionally protected with "no-lease" zones. These included the ecologically rich areas of Dease Inlet, Peard Bay, and Kasegaluk Lagoon. Of the 97,000 people who weighed in, all but 1,000 supported the Audubon alternative.

"In the end, the BLM isn't recommending the protection of a single acre, even in areas with lower oil potential," says Stan Senner, executive director of Audubon Alaska. At best, the BLM plan suggests "special" areas where wildlife can be studied even as the land is being leased. Many of the environmental safeguards that had been established up front will now be decided on a case-by-case basis, and the BLM can waive them whenever industry claims they are not economical.

This spring Interior Secretary Gale Norton will consider removing protections for the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area, which would open the remaining 13 percent of the Northeast Planning Area—key habitat for molting waterfowl and calving caribou—to leasing. Debate over the Southern Planning Area will begin sometime this year. "The desire to accelerate energy and other resource development is steamrolling a more balanced and defensible approach," says Senner. "The BLM and Bush administration are single-minded in their pursuit. They're the radicals here."

—Jennifer Bogo


© 2004  NASI

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Send a handwritten or typed letter (valued more highly than e-mail) to Interior Secretary Gale Norton, asking that she continue to protect the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area by maintaining the "no-lease" zone there: Gale Norton, Secretary of the Interior, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1849 C Street NW, Washington, DC 20240. Send a copy to Audubon Alaska, which will submit all letters this spring during the official public-comment period for Teshekpuk Lake: Audubon Alaska, 715 L Street, Suite 200, Anchorage, AK 99501. For more information, go to www.audubon.org/states/ak/.