Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Makes Nation's Most Endangered Refuges List

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Dire Threat of Global Warming Jeopardizes Refuge's Future

(10/05/2006) - Washington, D.C. -- Wildlife habitat is literally melting away in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, according a new report released by Defenders of Wildlife. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of the 10 most endangered refuges listed in Refuges at Risk: The Threat of Global Warming, America's Ten Most Endangered National Wildlife Refuges 2006, released in advance of National Wildlife Refuge Week, October 8-14.

Defenders has listed the Arctic Refuge in its annual Refuges at Risk reports for the past two years. While previous reports have highlighted the threat of oil drilling in the Arctic Refuge, this year's report profiles the equally daunting challenge the refuge is facing due to global warming.

"The Arctic Refuge is the country's most important onshore denning habitat for polar bears – and over the past year we have seen numerous disturbing stories of polar bears drowning and resorting to cannibalism as their sea ice hunting grounds literally melt away," stated Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife. "Global warming is no longer an uncertain future problem; it is here and having profound effects on our wildlife populations, particularly in Alaska."

Over the past century, the average temperature of the world's arctic regions has increased by 4 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit. Evidence of rapid warming is everywhere in the Arctic Refuge, but it is most apparent for the polar bear. Polar bears require sea ice to hunt for seals, their preferred prey. Polar ice is thinning, melting earlier in the spring, and pulling away from the coasts making it increasingly difficult for polar bears to survive.

Caribou are also leaving their wintering grounds a month earlier in a race to reach prime forage on the Arctic Refuge that blooms earlier every year. Arctic foxes are facing increased competition with red foxes as more red foxes move further north due to warming temperatures. Proposals to drill for oil also continue to threaten this refuge.

"The Arctic Refuge is a unique place on earth," said Schlickeisen. "It deserves special attention and immediate action. The effects of global warming are apparent from land to sea to sky, as wildlife species across the spectrum face ever increasing challenges from an ever changing landscape."

The changing climate poses a huge challenge for those in charge of managing the refuge system. Defenders' report offers a two-pronged approach to dealing with the impacts of these changes including steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and initiatives to help plan for the changes global warming will inevitably bring to these vital areas.

"The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is charged with preserving and protecting the refuge system and needs to take immediate steps to deal with the damage caused by global warming," declared Schlickeisen. "By implementing more energy efficient practices, expanding partnerships, exploring new initiatives to reduce greenhouse gases and developing comprehensive plans that address global warming, the Service and our refuge system will be better prepared to meet the challenges ahead."

The report specifically suggests the Service consider the effects of global warming-related impacts such as rising sea levels, habitat shifts and the increasing intensity of hurricanes and other weather patterns.

The National Wildlife Refuge System contains 545 refuges and covers nearly 100 million acres in all 50 states and five territories, providing some of this nation's most spectacular landscapes and supporting an amazing variety of wildlife -- from migratory birds to bighorn sheep, ocelots and caribou -- as well as many endangered and threatened species. Almost 40 million people visit refuges each year to view wildlife and enjoy outdoor experiences.

Defenders of Wildlife works with federal, tribal, state and local agencies, private organizations and landowners to protect America's national wildlife refuges. The goal of the Refuges at Risk report is to highlight the threats facing the wildlife refuge system in order to build public support for saving wildlife by safeguarding and nourishing the places where they live.

Top 10 Refuges At Risk of Global Warming
(in alphabetical order)

Alligator River NWR, NC -- Home to endangered red wolves, the low-lying nature of the refuge constitutes its greatest vulnerability to global warming. The rise in sea level that is expected in the next century from global warming would inundate much of the refuge.

Aransas NWR, TX -- The refuge protects the world's only wild population of endangered whooping cranes. Since the refuge is composed of low-lying coastal land with shallow estuarine marshes, the predicted rise in sea level from global warming would flood the marsh, erode beaches and possibly increase the salinity of rivers and groundwater.

Arctic NWR, AK -- The largest refuge in the country, the Arctic refuge is the most important onshore denning area for polar bears in the United States. Over the past century, the average temperature of the Arctic has increased by 4 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit. Sea ice is melting and permafrost is thawing, interfering with the migration of wildlife.

Chincoteague NWR, VA -- While this barrier island has always experienced slow geologic change from ocean currents and weather, the pace of change is quickening due to global warming. If sea levels rise rapidly as predicted, wildlife habitat, as well as roads and facilities, on the refuge will be overwhelmed.

Devil Lakes Wetland Management District, ND -- A waterfowl haven, this refuge is threatened by a projected increase in the frequency and severity of droughts due to global warming. The number of breeding ducks in the prairie pothole region could be cut in half.

Hawaiian Islands NWR, HI -- Warmer sea temperatures, shifting currents, rising sea levels and sinking habitat are harming wildlife such as monk seals, seabirds and coral on this remote island chain. Scientists believe if this warming trend continues, many species of coral will go extinct.

Kenai NWR, AK -- Known as "Little Alaska," this refuge is threatened by retreating glaciers, frequent forest fires, dry lakebeds and loss of lush wildlife habitat caused by global warming. Wetlands and ponds are drying up and lake levels are dropping. Invasive beetles, spurred by warmer temperatures, have devastated forests, severely damaging wildlife habitat.

Merritt Island NWR, FL -- This gateway to the Kennedy Space Center is also home to 17 endangered and threatened species. As sea levels rise, this refuge's marshlands and a portion of its uplands will be inundated. Moreover, a higher water temperature contributes to an increase in toxic algal blooms which kill manatees and other sea life.

Oregon Islands NWR, OR -- Just last year a radically different weather pattern during the breeding season of 1.2 million seabirds disrupted offshore currents and damaged the food chain, resulting in the largest ever die-off of the common murre, the refuge's most populous seabird resident. Similar events are expected in the future, rippling through the food chain.

Silvio O. Conte NWR, MA -- Projected rises in global temperatures of 2 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit may change the very nature of this refuge as well as the New England countryside. With projections that tree species will likely shift north by 200 miles, some wildlife species may not be able to adapt or migrate with the forest habitat. Earlier snow melts will lead to reduced stream flows and lowered oxygen levels by late summer, threatening the endangered shortnose sturgeon.

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Defenders of Wildlife is recognized as one of the nation's most progressive advocates for wildlife and its habitat. With more than 500,000 members and supporters, Defenders of Wildlife is an effective leader on endangered species issues.

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Contact(s):

Deborah Bagocius, (202) 772-0239

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