Prudhoe Bay is located on the Arctic Coastal Plain in Alaska and is one of the most important avian breeding grounds in the world, with millions of birds nesting here each year, before migrating to distant places such as Central and South America, Africa, Russia, Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand, and even Antarctica.
Unfortunately, Prudhoe Bay is also a site of intensive energy development which is now likely to increase due to the recently approved $8 billion Willow oil project – a controversial, long-term effort to drill in Alaska’s largest still untouched regions.
By analyzing 17 years of migratory bird-nesting data in Prudhoe Bay, a team of researchers led by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has now found that nest survival decreased substantially in the vicinity of high-use oil and gas infrastructure and the various disturbances it produces, including noise, traffic, dust, and air pollution.
“Tundra-breeding birds contend with short breeding seasons, harsh climatic conditions, and now, rapidly changing, variable, and unpredictable environmental conditions caused by climate change. Additionally, as we demonstrate here, those breeding in industrial areas are impacted by human activities too,” said study co-author Martin Robards, the Regional Director of WCS’s Arctic Beringia Program.
“The urgency to better understand these relationships and mitigate impacts cannot be expressed strongly enough, given widely acknowledged declines in these species, our national and global obligations to protect migratory birds, and the fact that the potential impacts are so large.”
By monitoring 1265 shorebird nests, 378 passerine (songbird) nests, and 231 waterfowl nests, the experts examined the factors influencing reproductive parameters of breeding birds at Prudhoe Bay between 2003 and 2019.
The investigation revealed that nest survival decreased significantly close to high-use infrastructure – a worrisome aspect that previous short-term studies were unable to detect, suggesting that long-term datasets are crucial for understanding how climate change and increased anthropogenic activities impact breeding birds.
Some of the factors linked to industrial development which may directly or indirectly influence nesting include habitat degradation through hydrology alteration and road dust, noise, air pollution, vehicle and aircraft traffic, and the increased numbers of nest predator populations associated with development, such as ravens, Arctic foxes, or glaucous gulls.
“In the face of current uncertainty, to protect migratory birds, the U.S. Government should ensure the most important bird areas continue to be set aside, as has been done through the NPR-A’s Special Areas [regions from the 36,875 square mile National Petroleum Reserve west of Prudhoe Bay that are set aside from production due to their significant ecological importance or subsistence value],” concluded John Calvelli, the Executive Vice President for Public Affairs at WCS.
The study is published in the Journal of Avian Biology.