Birds on the shore of Alaska's Teshekpuk Lake.
A dunlin and sandpipers search for food near Teshekpuk Lake in North Slope Borough, Alaska, on May 28, 2019.
(Photo: Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The Willow Project Threatens Alaska Bird Breeding Paradise

Of all places in the world to destroy, let’s not make the birds’ honeymoon haven one of them.

Under the beautiful iridescent Northern sky lies a haven for birds, a Paris of the avian world, its Eiffel Tower a beautiful lake, its accordion the sound of birdsong, its wine the emerald-green of the Northern lights. Birds flock from thousands of miles away to this nesting spot now commonly called ‘lover’s lane’—it is where they raise their baby chicks. To them this is the only place, and none other quite like it in the whole world.

This honeymoon haven is in Alaska. A striking 600,000 shorebirds breed in the Teshekpuk Lake wetlands. It is the greatest breeding density known anywhere in the Arctic. And this area is under threat from Biden’s Willow oil drilling project.

Oil and gas drilling causes chronic stress in birds. The noise pollution changes corticosterone (stress hormone) levels the same way PTSD does in humans. Scientists have observed a linear relationship between stress hormone levels in birds and their distance from noisy gas drilling compressors. Perhaps even worse, in addition to a poor quality of life, nestling growth is stunted for those facing the environmental stress. So not only are the parents under stress on a par with PTSD, but baby chicks can not grow normally. This is true even at distances when the sound is less severe.

Because the region is so important to a vast number of species and is essential breeding ground, drilling nearby is extraordinarily foolhardy and risky.

The effect on baby chicks is especially concerning when one considers drilling in an area in close proximity to a bird nesting haven. Numerous bird species on the Alaska Watch List nest or molt near Teshekpuk Lake. Of special note are the Steller’s eider and Spectacle Eider, which are listed as threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. Teshekpuk Lake is nesting habitat for all four world eider species.

The sheer number of birds that depend on the region is astonishing, with up to 100,000 geese molting in the region each year, and 600,000 shorebirds breeding within the wetlands.

According to Audubon, about one-fifth of the world’s population of yellow-billed loons breed in western and northern Alaska. The yellow-billed loon has a near threatened status. A beautiful bird with a checkered back, white belly, and yellow bill, these deep-sea divers form long lasting pairs, like doves.

Other species besides our aviary friends stand to be harmed by the drilling as well, including polar bears and caribou. One would not be surprised if the noise also disturbed their lifestyle and reproduction.

Of course, chemical contamination is not uncommon near drilling sites, and this could have a devastating effect on all the inhabitants of the region, animals, birds, and humans. If a spill were to occur, it would be extremely difficult to recover from and could easily destroy populations. Because the region is so important to a vast number of species and is essential breeding ground, drilling nearby is extraordinarily foolhardy and risky.

Even without chemical contaminants, birds within earshot of the compressors will suffer reproductive setbacks due to the constant stress, as has been shown by scientists’ controlled experiments. Exposing hundreds of thousands of birds to permanent stress will cause stunted growth in the next generation.

Some people might believe this only affects Alaska, but the birds that you and I see and enjoy thousands of miles away—the geese, the ducks, the migratory birds—they will be affected, and we will see fewer and fewer of them if their reproductive success is disturbed by Willow’s drilling.

Of all places in the world to destroy, let’s not make the birds’ honeymoon haven one of them. We will notice the impacts for generations to come, when we look out the window and find the migratory birds who usually visit that time of year are simply no longer there.

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