Snow geese are like pearls, standing out from other species by their snow white coloring that ends in black-tipped wings, Christina Vojta said.

The birds have been spotted at the Kachina Wetlands south of Flagstaff, but only rarely, said Vojta, who is the Northern Arizona Audubon Society’s official steward of the wetlands area.

“They're such precious sightings for us,” she said. “You never know when you’re going to get lucky but when you see it, it’s such a thrill.”

Opportunities to see the birds are fleeting, in part, because they’re among a handful of species in northern Arizona that make a cross-country journey each year to and from the pristine coastal plain of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR. Millions of birds representing more than 200 species migrate there from across the world to feed and reproduce in the expansive tundra habitat.

The area has been off-limits to energy development for decades, but no more.

A provision in the $1.5 trillion tax bill passed by Republican legislators on Wednesday contains a provision that will open 1.5 million acres of the refuge to oil and gas development. It’s an environmentally devastating prospect in the eyes of some of the country’s largest conservation organizations as well as local birders like Vojta.

Phyllis Kegley, another Flagstaff birder and a member of the Northern Arizona Audubon Society, called opening ANWR to energy development “a disaster in the making.”

Besides birds, the area is home to landscape-defining species like musk ox, moose, bears, wolves, caribou and polar bears.

Supporters of drilling point out that it represents a domestic energy source and cite the revenues extraction would generate. The Congressional Budget Office estimates oil and gas leases covering up to 800,000 acres in the coastal plain would generate $1.1 billion over the next decade.

Environmental groups like the National Audubon Society say those economic benefits aren’t worth the risk of permanently damaging one of the last untouched areas of arctic coastal plain.They point to the vast web of well pads, roads and pipelines that has already crept across other parts of Alaska’s North Slope.

Such development slices up and paves over bird habitat and creates dust and noise that affects sensitive species, said Nils Warnock, executive director of Audubon Alaska. Roads act as mini-dams that affect the way ice melts and water pools, changing the hydrology of the area, while the influx of human food and infrastructure attract animals like foxes and ravens that prey on birds’ nests, Warnock said. After energy infrastructure is built, the area faces the lasting risk of an oil spill.

“That was really the only protected piece of arctic coastal plain,” Warnock said.

Loss of habitat, combined with melting sea ice, rising sea levels and shifts to the arctic food web that are happening because of climate change, make it more and more challenging for the birds to survive, Warnock said.

And those effects can ripple outward to the birds that end up at marshes, ponds and lakes around Flagstaff, 4,000 miles away. One of those species is the green-winged teal, with its cinnamon-colored head marked by a band of iridescent emerald, Vojta said. She said the small dabbling duck shows up at places like Frances Short Pond and the Kachina Wetlands and breeds in areas of the northern United States, Canada and Alaska, including the state’s northern coastal plain. The small long-billed dowitcher, another species that has been spotted near Flagstaff, has an even smaller slice of the Alaskan coastal plain where it breeds.

“The fact is it spends another half of its year somewhere else, and if that other somewhere else is damaged it won't be here on the pond,” Vojta said about the birds.

Warnock said Audubon would be fighting the expansion of drilling to ANWR’s coastal plain area every step of the way, but didn’t detail specific actions, citing uncertainties around the legalities and next steps with the issue.

Emery Cowan can be reached at (928) 556-2250 or ecowan@azdailysun.com

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Environment, Health and Science Reporter

Emery Cowan writes about science, health and the environment for the Arizona Daily Sun, covering everything from forest restoration to endangered species recovery efforts.

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