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The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is a wildlife refuge that plays an outsized role in the culture of both Alaska and the United States at large. Established in 1903, ANWR is the largest wildlife refuge in the U.S. and one of the largest in the world, consisting of just over 19 million acres of land in the northeastern part of the state, much of it within the Arctic Circle. As a wildlife refuge, it exists to protect Alaska’s flora and fauna from human development.

In recent years, ANWR has been in the news over attempts by oil companies to exploit possible petroleum deposits in the region. However, the history of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is much deeper than this. Learn about the history of ANWR and its importance to both Alaska and the U.S. in general.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Arctic Circle

While indigenous peoples have lived in the territory of ANWR for generations, large-scale interest in settling Alaska did not develop until the late 1800’s. The Yukon gold rush brought countless settlers to Alaska and neighboring Yukon in Canada to make their fortunes, resulting in pollution and despoliation of the region’s natural beauty. The conservationist movement of the early 1900’s was focused on protecting areas of beauty in the U.S. that were at risk of ruination by human development.

In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt established the National Wildlife Refuge System, creating ANWR. An ardent outdoorsman and conservationist, Roosevelt was concerned about the destruction of wildlife and land that had accompanied the Industrial Revolution and the various land rushes of the 19th century. The National Wildlife Refuge System sought to close off areas from human settlement and development, preserving the delicate balance of nature in America’s rural areas.

The conservationist movement would later win another victory with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. A treaty between the U.S. and U.K. (which was responsible for Canada’s foreign affairs at the time), it protected the rights of migratory birds in Alaska and made it illegal to hunt them without a waiver. This treaty laid the basis by which wildlife in Alaska is protected to the present day. In 1960, Interior Secretary Fred Andrew Seaton declared ANWR a federal protected area.

The discovery of oil along Alaska’s North Slope in the 1960’s resulted in renewed interest in development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, due to the fact that it covers a significant portion of the region. However, development has been halted due to public opposition on the part of Alaskans and conservationists, who want to retain ANWR as a safe habitat for wildlife that might otherwise be threatened. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act into law, further protecting ANWR from human encroachment.

At the moment, ANWR remains closed for oil exploration and other large-scale development. There are a number of Alaskan Native villages in the region, the largest being Kaktovik, an Iñupiat village of 258 located along ANWR’s northern edge. There are no roads within or connecting to ANWR, with residents restricted to travel via air or sea. It is also possible to enter the Refuge by hiking, as the Dalton Highway is located just west of ANWR.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge boasts a larger variety of wildlife than any other park or protected area in the Arctic Circle, with six different ecozones contained within its boundaries. Fauna found within ANWR include polar bears, caribou, Dall sheep, Dolly Varden trout, grizzly bears, golden eagles, and many more. The southern part of ANWR is largely taiga, marked by frequent forest fires due to lightning storms.

Oil drilling in ANWR remains a controversial topic, with oil firms interested in development along the Refuge’s Arctic coast. It is estimated that between 5 and 16 billion barrels of oil and natural gas are contained within the Refuge, primarily in a section of the North Slope known as the “1002 area.” Development remains halted due to the necessity of Congressional approval, concerns over whether development would be profitable due to the changing price of oil, and fears that oil drilling would permanently harm the wildlife in the area.

Another concern related to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the effects of climate change. Rising sea levels in the Arctic Ocean pose a threat to the wildlife of ANWR by submerging coastlines and destroying habitats. Oil exploitation has been halted in part due to fears that it would accelerate the rate of climate change-related degradation.


The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge remains one of the most important natural sanctuaries in the world. With millions of acres of untouched land, it has become an important landmark for preserving the diversity and ecology of the Arctic Circle. While political changes in the future may result in parts of ANWR being opened for exploitation, the Refuge as a whole remains a significant tool in conserving the natural balance of rural Alaska.