The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska – ANWR – is home to some of the most incredible apex predators on the planet. The mighty grizzly, the clever black bear, and the great gray wolf all congregate here. This refuge is aptly named; it is their home, where they live, hunt, raise families, and eventually die. The tundras, woods, and mountains of the refuge are the floors, walls, and roofs of their great house. The Wilderness Act of 1964, which followed and was deeply tied to ANWR’s establishment, envisioned forever protecting places “Where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man.”
The bears and wolves are a key part of this special ecosystem. A study of the return of wolves to Yellowstone National Park in particular shows that their presence not only directly affects prey species, but actually changes the way the ecosystem is formed and maintained. Deer, moose, and elk change their behavior in the presence of these apex predators, allowing native vegetation to thrive where it would otherwise be cropped to the ground. The predators also ensure that the strong survive to pass on their genes, and they concentrate and move nutrients to replenish the soil, nourishing the very plants that prey species depend on.
Since ANWR was established by Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the world has grown smaller. The fight between those who would protect ANWR’s treasures and those who would plunder them has again risen into the national spotlight. In August of 2016, after long debate and public commentary, the government provided specific additional protections to the great predators of ANWR. They prohibited sports hunters seeking trophies and fame from killing mother bears with cubs inside the refuge. They also said that these hunters should not utilize bait, traps, or snares to capture bears here. They protected wolves and coyotes during denning, the time when they birth and raise young. And in a very high-profile battle, they prohibited the shooting of any of these apex predators from the distant and relentless cover of a small plane.
But now, the new congress is moving swiftly to dismantle the protections granted late in 2016 to the bears and wolves of ANWR. The House of Representatives, citing an obscure rule called the Congressional Review Act, has voted to remove them. They say that by killing apex predators, they will increase the health and quantity of prey species that locals rely on during the winter. They argue that the state of Alaska alone should have the right to say how these nationally designated public lands are treated and protected. The proposal to cut off the predator protections will now move from the House to the Senate, and then to the desk of the president.
If it is signed, planes, snares, and hunters will follow, seeking the lives of these incredible creatures so that they can adorn the walls of their homes and their social media pages. The largest wildlife refuge in the nation will no longer be “untrammeled by man.” And the black bear families, the wolf packs, and the grizzly clans will be vulnerable to a much more immediate threat than the slow and inevitable march of climate change. They will need to find a way to survive the most insatiable and untouchable predator of all: mankind.
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