Two weeks ago, we described the Important Bird Areas in Alaska that will be in harm's way if the federal government goes through with its plan to allow oil and gas drilling in the Chukchi Sea.
A few days later, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service postponed its decision about whether to protect the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The bear, of course, occurs across much of the sea, including most of the area that would be opened up for drilling.
Yesterday on Capitol Hill, the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming held a hearing with the directors of Fish and Wildlife and the Minerals Management Service, which is in charge of the petroleum leases. The Associated Press reports that the two officials said drilling "can proceed without threatening polar bears that depend on the sea ice."
Committee chairman Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) is unconvinced. He hopes to stop the drilling sale at least until a decision about the polar bear is made.
The polar bear is certainly worth all of the concern, but if Congress needs species to point to that are in the path of the oilmen and already on the Endangered Species List, we suggest looking at the area's birds.
Spectacled Eider (above) and Steller's Eider are both listed as threatened. Kittlitz's Murrelet is a candidate for listing. And Ivory Gull is listed as endangered in Canada. The official recovery plans for the two eiders note the threats that oil spills pose. And a comprehensive 2006 FWS report covering 43 seabird species in Alaska refers to the threat of oil over and over again. Consider what it says about the Common Murre:
“Murres are very vulnerable to oiling at sea because they have a low reproductive rate, large populations, dense concentrations in coastal habitats, and form 'rafts' (flocks) on the water. No North American coast where murres occur has been exempt from major kills due to oil spills during the past 50 years. The Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 in Prince William Sound, Alaska, was the largest murre kill yet, with an estimated mortality of 185,000 murres. Long-term beached bird surveys also indicate chronic oiling, often without a known source. This susceptibility to oiling is what drives much of the research on the species.”
Small dark goose. Black Brant subspecies breeds from eastern Russia to western Alaska to northwestern Canada. On Chukchi Sea coast, breeds at Peard Bay. Up to 40,000 feed and stage on Kasegaluk Lagoon north of Icy Cape in late summer. Birds also stage on Teshekpuk Lake before beginning migration to coast of Mexico.
Listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act
The smallest eider; it breeds in Russia and Alaska. Nests within 90 km (56 miles) of Chukchi Sea coast from Point Lay to Barrow and east to Prudhoe Bay. Aerial surveys suggest population in northern Alaska is no more than a few thousand birds. Migrates in spring from wintering area in Aleutians along Chukchi Sea coast.
Listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act
Breeds in Russia and in three regions in Alaska, including coastal area from Point Lay east to Prudhoe Bay. Large numbers molt from July through October in Chukchi Sea’s Ledyard Bay. High count on the bay: 33,192 on September 21, 1995.
Breeds from Alaska’s Arctic Coastal Plain to Canada’s Banks and Victoria Islands. Spring migration (April to mid-June) passes through Bering Strait and across Chukchi Sea and eastward past Point Barrow. Most molt in Bering Sea, and some molt in Chukchi Sea.
The largest eider. Pacific subspecies breeds from northwestern Canada to Siberia. Alaska nesting areas include coasts of Beufort, Chukchi, and Bering Seas. Spring and fall migration routes occur near shore and well out to sea, and molting areas presumably include Chukchi or Bering Seas.
Widespread arctic sea duck. Breeds in Greenland, Canada, Russia, and much of Alaska, including entire Arctic Coastal Plain. Migrates in spring through Arctic Ocean, gathering in large flocks among ice leads before inland breeding areas open. Numbers at Point Barrow peak in early June.
Our smallest loon. Breeds across Alaska, Canada, Russia, and northern Europe on remote ponds and coastal tundra. Alaskan range includes northern and western coasts. Small numbers migrate offshore.
Possibly our most abundant loon. Breeds throughout Alaska and northern Canada. Migrates around Alaska (May to early June) through Bering, Chukchi, and Beufort Seas.
One of the least common breeding birds in the United States. Alaska population estimate: 3,700-4,900 individuals. Along Chukchi Sea coast, breeds sporadically from Point Lay to Point Barrow. Main breeding area southeast of Barrow.
A seabird rarely seen from land. Breeds in Australia and migrates to the North Pacific during the Southern Hemisphere’s winter. One of the most abundant species in pelagic waters of Alaska in summer. Numbers in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas lower than in the southern Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska.
Dark-colored fish eater. One-third of world population breeds at 420 colonies in coastal Alaska. Northernmost colony is at Cape Lisburne in the Chukchi Sea. Suffered significant losses in the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound in 1989.
A small shorebird that breeds on Arctic coasts. As many as 500,000 feed on plankton in the Chukchi Sea.
Black-hooded gull that breeds in small colonies or as single pairs across the arctic and subarctic. In northern Alaska, nesting occurs from Cape Sabine (northern portion of Cape Lisburne Peninsula) east to the Alaska-Canadian border.
A small gull known to breed at 371 colony sites in Alaska. Northernmost colonies at Capes Lisburne and Thompson.
Listed as Endangered by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada
A small, all-white gull of the High Arctic. Rare and declining. Migrates south through Chukchi Sea and Bering Strait to wintering areas in the Bering Sea.
Known for its unprecedented Arctic to Antarctic migrations. Breeds across Arctic Ocean coasts south to Cape Cod, Massachusetts. In Alaska, breeding occurs from southeast coast to Aleutian Islands and north along coasts of Bering and Chukchi Seas, including Krusenstern Lagoon.
One of the arctic’s least studied birds. Breeds along northern Alaska coast from Point Lay eastward and on the Yukon Delta. Vulnerable to human disturbance due to reliance on sporadic populations of lemmings for successful reproduction.
Like other jaegers, spends majority of life at sea; comes to land only to breed. In summer, breeds across polar regions, including the entire arctic and western coasts of Alaska.
The most abundant jaeger. Major breeding populations in Alaska, Canada, and Russia. In Alaska, breeds from the Brooks Range to the west coast to the Kodiak Archipelago.
An abundant and well-studied seabird. Significant colonies (mixed with Thick-billed Murres) found along most of coastal Alaska, including at Capes Lisburne and Thompson.
Circumpolar breeding range, similar to Common Murre, includes Cape Lisburne. Thick-billed is more common in the Chukcki Sea.
A striking, almost entirely black bird in breeding plumage. Survival is tied to arctic pack ice. Nests across the arctic, but in Alaska, it is uncommon and local. Breeds at Point Barrow east to Igalik Island and in the Chukchi Sea at Cape Thompson.
A candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act
One of North America’s smallest and least-known seabirds. Most of world’s population breeds, molts, and winters in Alaska. Inhabits coastal waters from Point Lay in Chukchi Sea south and east to Glacier Bay. Prince William Sound population has declined 84% since 1989.
Fairly common, small seabird of the Bering and Chukchi Seas. Feeds on plankton in areas of the Chukchi where Least and Crested Auklets do not occur.
Widespread in the North Pacific. Breeds in Alaska in the Aleutians, the Pribilofs, and other islands, as well as at Cape Lisburne. Population in Prince William Sound declined 79% from 1972-98.
Crow-sized with huge orange bill, white face, golden tufts on each side of the head. In Alaska, occurs primarily in the Aleutians. Northernmost colony is at Cape Lisburne.
To voice your concern for the sea's birds (and bears), consider signing this petition from Defenders of Wildlife. — M.M.