Researchers who conducted the first-ever comprehensive survey of breeding shorebirds in a hotly disputed portion of the coastal plain of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge have determined that the number is easily large enough to qualify the area as a site of international importance.
Led by Stephen Brown, director of shorebird research and conservation at the Manomet Center for Conservation Science, the researchers estimated the number of shorebirds in the so-called 1002 Area to be about 230,000.
The total is twice the biological criterion for classification as a Western Hemisphere Shorebirds Reserve Network Site of International Importance (100,000 birds) and more than 10 times the threshold for qualification as a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance (20,000 birds).
The percentage of North America’s population of Pectoral Sandpipers breeding in the area, more than 13 percent, also exceeds the standard WHSRN uses to define sites of international importance.
As I'm sure you know, whether to develop oil and gas reserves in the
1002 Area has been a subject of intense and often block-headed debate
for years. (How many times have you heard someone blither on
about how there's nothing up there?) Yet until this survey, conducted
in 2002 and 2004, we didn't know diddly about the population sizes and
distributions of nesting shorebirds (or any other birds).
Sure, long-term studies had been conducted on many of the large herbivores and predators on the coastal plain, including Golden Eagles. Snow Geese have also been the subject of extensive study. But as for the 155 or so other birds that have been recorded on the coastal plain, well, it's been the blind leading the blind.
"Existing studies are insufficient to predict or mitigate the potential impacts of development on shorebirds within the coastal plain,” writes Brown, "because population sizes and the distribution of nesting shorebirds are unknown."
The 1002 Area occupies 1.6 million acres between the Beaufort Sea and the foothills of the Brooks Range at the northern edge of the 19 million-acre Arctic refuge. It is bounded by the Canning River to the west and the Aichilik River to the east.
“Our data indicate that nesting shorebirds tend to associate with wetland and riparian habitats that are unevenly distributed on the coastal plain,” the researchers write.
“The importance of these habitats for breeding shorebirds, many of which have declining populations, should be considered when making management decisions. Any future changes occurring in these habitats would have disproportionate effects on breeding shorebirds.”
The researchers published their findings in a recent issue of The Condor, the quarterly journal of the Cooper Ornithological Society. You can read more about their paper in "Birding Briefs" in our August 2007 issue. -- C.H.
The complete citation:
Stephen Brown, Jonathan Bart, Richard B. Lanctot, James A. Johnson, Steve Kendall, David Payer, and Jay Johnson. 2007. Shorebird abundance and distribution on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Condor 109: 1-14.