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Teshekpuk Lake singled out as hub for nesting Arctic birds

Doug O'Harra

Teshekpuk Lake and surrounding wetlands along Alaska's Arctic coast may be the most critical bird nesting habitat in the region and should be made off-limits to oil and gas development for good, according to a new study published this month in the journal Arctic.

"Mean annual nest density of all bird species combined was significantly higher at Teshekpuk than at Prudhoe Bay and was higher than any of five other sites with comparable data on the Alaskan Arctic Coastal Plain," the authors wrote in the study’s abstract.

"Total shorebird nest densities at Teshekpuk were among the highest of any sites in the region. … Therefore, we recommend that future oil infrastructure placement in this region avoid these habitats."

Located inside the northeast corner of the 23.5-million-acre National Petroleum Reserve, the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area long been considered one of the most promising locales for future oil and gas development to the west of Alaska's oil patch, with about 77 percent of its 1.7 million acres already open to development. The question of whether to allow companies to explore and drill in wetlands close to the lake has been the focus of controversy and legal action for years.

Conservationists say this tundra mosiac of soggy meadows and ponds is one of the most important bird molting sites in the entire Arctic, with some of the highest seasonal concentrations of wildlife found anywhere on Alaska’s North Slope.

Enviromentalists: Unique biological values trump energy benefits

The study, by biologists Joe Liebezeit and Steve Zack of the Wildlife Conservation Society, and Colorado State University statistician Gary White -- argues that Teshekpuk's unique biological values trump the potential benefits that might come from new energy development.

"This is the first study to investigate breeding bird densities and measure how well birds are able to produce young in this remote and important region near Teshekpuk Lake," said the study's lead author, Joe Liebezeit, in an article posted by the Wildlife Conservation Society. "We found that the density of nesting birds was markedly higher compared to many other sites in Arctic Alaska."

"Teshekpuk Lake is in the middle of the world's biggest Arctic wetland, and thus at the heart of an international migration of shorebirds, waterfowl, loons, and songbirds that nest in this highly productive region during the short summer," Zack added. "This study makes clear how valuable this region is to breeding birds."

Located about 80 miles southeast of Barrow, the 22-mile-wide Teshekpuk Lake lays just inland from the shallows along the Arctic Ocean, surrounded by vast wet tundra and innumerable smaller lakes and ponds. Inupiaq Natives have visited the area to gather food for thousands of years.

The area is also the calving ground for the 70,000-strong Teshekpuk Lake caribou herd. Scientists have argued that it's the most important site in the entire Arctic for molting geese, and serves as a critical spring habitat for a dozen other species in decline or danger, including the threatened spectacled eider and the yellow-billed loon, under consideration for the Endangered Species list.

 "The areas north and east of Teshekpuk Lake provide ideal conditions for molting geese: a remote location that's free of development, large lakes where flightless birds can escape from predators, and tender sedges to fuel their high energy demands," according to Audubon Alaska.

For decades, the area was withheld from oil and gas leasing partly as a result of its biological value. But after oil companies made significant discoveries just to the southeast, on the western fringe of the Prudhoe Bay oil complex, pressure developed in the early 2000s to open the lake area to exploration. Federal government included the lake’s shoreline and most of the surrounding wetland in a 2006 lease offering.

A coalition of environmental groups successfully sued in federal court, overturning the lease plans and forcing the Bureau of Land Management to seek additional public comment. More than 150,000 responses later, the agency announced in 2008 that it would defer oil and gas leasing for about 400,000 acres north and east of Teshekpuk for at least 10 years while it gathered data, took more comments and wrote a plan.

Last July, the Obama administration announced it would put about 170,000 acres south of the lake temporarily off limits to act as a buffer zone. That move prompted Zack, who has been studying the birds in the area for six years, to exclaim “Santa Clause is real” in a National Geographic News article.

Before the latest comment period closed in October, a coalition of 30 conservation groups (and more than 175,000 commentators) urged BLM planners to permanently protect the rest of Teshekpuk wetlands and similar areas from oil and gas development and exploration.

The issue continues to be controversial. In a speech before the National Press Club last month, Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell accused the Obama administration being "openly hostile" to opening new land to oil exploration in Alaska, and news coverage cited the status of Teshekpuk Lake wetlands as a prime example.

The recent Arctic journal study, which has garnered extensive media coverage over the past week, added new data to help resolve the issue. 

Between 2005 and 2008, the scientists monitored 1,074 nests of 26 different species within 18 study plots in the area south of Teshekpuk that was temporarily closed to development last year. They also watched nests in 11 study plots 150 miles to the east in Prudhoe Bay. The species included Lapland longspur, semi-palmated sandpiper and pectoral sandpiper -- 62 percent of the total nests.

They also compared the results to previous studies at other sites in the coastal plain. What they found was remarkable.

"Overall nest densities at the Teshekpuk Lake site far exceeded those found at six other sites on the Arctic Coastal Plain, including the Prudhoe Bay oilfield site," the researchers wrote in the paper. Nest survivorship -- the production of young birds -- was higher for some species at Teshekpuk as well.

Their conclusion: "Because of its importance as a molting area for waterfowl, and as a calving ground for the Teshekpuk caribou herd, we recommend that the region of our study and the region of the 10-year development deferral be granted permanent protection." 

Contact Doug O'Harra at doug(at)alaskadispatch.com