Alaska Conservation Summary

Caribou herds migrating across the tundra, streams thronged with salmon, huge glaciers, and North America’s tallest peak...this is the popular image of our northernmost state. While not inaccurate, this view from the lower 48 only touches on the overlooked diversity of Alaska’s species and ecosystems.

Alaska’s Arctic tundra is a land of ice-rich frozen ground, thaw-lakes and rich bird life. Its boreal forests still retain natural fire cycles that often burn millions of acres each year, creating a natural mosaic of herbaceous, deciduous and spruce forest ecosystems. Alaska’s temperate rainforest is among the rarest forest systems on Earth and supports vast old growth adjacent to receding glaciers. The Aleutian Islands is a surreal region of volcanoes and ocean swept by wind and rain. In addition, its marine environment is among the most productive systems on Earth, supporting extensive marine mammal, seabird and fish populations.

Alaska’s most unique conservation characteristic may be that its top predators like wolves, polar bears, and brown (grizzly) bear still thrive across the state, thanks to Alaskans’ conscious efforts to maintain them, their prey base, and their habitats.

Rare Species and Characteristic Habitats

The unique habitats of America’s “last frontier” support rare plant species such as the Drummond's bluebell, which thrives on active sand dunes along arctic rivers. Geographic isolation also produces rarity in such forms as the Aleutian shield-fern,an endemic of the central Aleutian Islands, and the Pribilof Island Shrew, which is confined to tiny St. Paul Island in the Bering Sea. Though most of Alaska’s species are stable, some have shown recent and continuing population declines, such as the Steller’s eider in northern coastal Alaska, various caribou herds, and the Cook Inlet beluga whale population.

Public and Private Conservation Efforts

Most of Alaska still hosts intact ecosystems, among them some conservation lands that protect unique resources. For example, the Yukon-Kuskokwim National Wildlife Refuge supports one of the largest aggregations of water birds in the world. Every spring millions of ducks, geese (including emperor geese that spend most of their lives in Alaska) and other waterfowl return to the refuge to nest.

While brown bears are found throughout Alaska, two preserves make a special effort to protect some of their largest concentrations: Katmai National Park and Preserve and McNeil River State Game Sanctuary and Refuge.

And the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve supports a high concentration of an uncommon Alaskan ecosystem, dry steppe bluffs. These are steep south-facing wind-swept bluffs that support species uncommon to Alaska such as fringed sagebrush, Bluebunch wheatgrass, and rare species including Yukon wild-buckwheat.

Alaska’s conservation successes are due partly to extensive protected lands. Nineteen percent of the state is designated either as national parks or federal and state wilderness and preserve. Another 26 percent of lands are managed by the federal and state government and enjoy a moderate level of protection, including national wildlife refuges, national forests, numerous state parks, and vast tracts of Bureau of Land Management lands.

Conservation organizations also play an important role in the conservation of Alaska’s ecosystems. The Audubon Society and Natural Heritage Program both provide biological information through their Important Bird Areas and NatureServe Explorer, respectively, which inform key conservation decisions across the state. The Conservation Fund and The Nature Conservancy have also protected significant tracts of land.

Threats

While most of the state remains relatively undeveloped, without additional efforts Alaska may not have protected its most important lands during future development—though residents still have time to employ a science-based approach to protect biodiversity. In addition to human disturbance, threats to Alaska’s ecosystems include increasing populations of invasive non-native species that are affecting both the aquatic and terrestrial environment. This is especially evident in the more populated regions where non-native weeds are spreading into native habitats.

Climate change, however, may pose the greatest challenge. Alaska, as with other northern latitude regions, is experiencing a dramatic increase in temperature that will have a cascading effect in all ecosystems. Biomes are expected to shift north, affecting all biodiversity conservation efforts in the state. For example, along the Arctic Ocean coastline, the reduction in pack ice has increased coastal erosion rates, creating significant impacts on polar bears, their habitat, and they prey that support them.

Alaska’s Future

Alaskans are exceptionally proud of their wild state. They have repeatedly acted to conserve its large predators and caribou herds, and even brought musk ox and whale populations back from the brink of extinction. Cherished traditions like subsistence hunting and fishing require wise stewardship of these resources. The health of the fish populations that breed in Alaska’s rivers is partly due to the consensus around the state’s 1990 legislated requirement to preserve buffer strips along migratory fish streams, which provides the nation’s highest level of protection for such habitats. Wise resource development is a critical component to ensure healthy human communities alongside thriving fish and wildlife populations. Through their efforts, Alaskans can ensure that the state’s wild lands and healthy ecosystems are passed on healthy and intact to future generations.

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