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We’re guessing most Floridians don’t know much about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, located about 5,000 miles away from us in Alaska’s northeast corner.
But if we had to bet, we’d probably say it contains at least one thing. There’s gotta be wildlife, right?
Wrong, says former U.S. Rep. Dave Weldon, the Republican newcomer in the U.S. Senate race. Weldon is vying with several candidates, including U.S. Rep. Connie Mack, to win the Republican nomination and run against incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson in November.
One way Weldon really breaks from Nelson, he said, is he wants to drill for oil in the refuge to lessen dependence on foreign sources. (The refuge is commonly called ANWR and pronounced an-whar.)
In an interview on Central Florida News 13’s Political Connections show, Weldon emphatically said there is no wildlife in the refuge.
"We should be drilling up there," he said. "I don’t know why Democrats have been opposing that for years. I have been up there. There’s a ton of oil up there, and there’s no wildlife. We drill in something like 15 wildlife refuges in the lower 48. I just don’t understand why Democrats like Bill Nelson don’t want to drill up there.
"I have gone up there. It’s like a moonscape. There’s no trees, there’s no animals. They call it the wildlife refuge, but there’s absolutely nothing up there. It’s just tundra, it’s ice. And in my opinion you can drill safely up there."
A reader asked us to examine his comments about wildlife, especially after she found conflicting information right away on the refuge website that boasts of "42 fish species, 37 land mammals, eight marine mammals, and more than 200 migratory and resident bird species."
So is the area more like a moonscape or a serengeti?
For this fact-check, we’re focusing on a simple question: Is there wildlife on the refuge? For now, we’re staying away from the debate of whether wildlife would be affected by oil drilling in the refuge.
Congress created the refuge in 1960 and expanded and renamed it in 1980. Part of the law required 1.5 million of its 19 million acres be set aside for possible oil and gas development, which would need congressional approval.
Congress has never approved that. Several environmental groups urged Obama to declare the refuge a national monument so that it never happens. He has not.
The refuge is about the size of South Carolina. Its tundra terrain is sometimes mountainous, sometimes forested, and sometimes plains.
Located east of the Prudhoe Bay oil field, the refuge could possess one of the country’s largest untapped onshore supply of oil. (You can read more about that in this PolitiFact report, which examined Sarah Palin’s 2008 claim that ANWR drilling would affect "2,000 out of 20-million acres.")
Weldon does have a point about there being no trees. While the southern part of the refuge, known as the boreal forest, is heavily forested, the greenery turns to shrubs and grass farther north.
"This is a tundra biome, not a forest," said Alan Springer, a research professor at the Institute of Marine Science at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. "That fact hardly diminishes its intrinsic value as a pristine, unique ecosystem within the borders of the United States."
The area eyed for drilling has "extensive vegetation cover that is nearly continuous, except for gravel bars along rivers, a few sandy dunes, and rocky beaches along the Arctic coast," said David Payer, the refuge’s supervisory ecologist since 2001 and a veterinarian. (Read more about wildlife in the refuge in this booklet.)
Yes, there is wildlife
Without question, there are animals in the refuge, even in the zone that most people eye for drilling, known as "1002." Weldon told us in an interview that is the location to which he was referring, but he’s still wrong about wildlife here.
The Arctic’s long, dark winter isn’t conducive to a lot of wildlife, but several kinds of animal species stick it out during those months, Payer said.
He points to Muskoxen, wolves, wolverines, Arctic and red foxes, polar and grizzly bears (they stay in their winter dens, but they’re still there), as well as a number of bird species, including ptarmigan and ravens. Lemmings and other small creatures live beneath the outer layer of snow, which acts as an insular blanket.
During the few summer months, large congregations of animals gather and breed, particularly on the coastal plain, he said. Hundreds of thousands of migratory birds, including several kinds of imperiled shorebirds, come each year.
The Porcupine caribou herd, estimated at 169,000 members, depend on the treeless tundra terrain of the coastal plain to raise their young, typically in June and July.
Polar bears, a threatened species (not endangered), are hard to detect but can be spotted along the Beaufort Sea.
"With regard to the lack of animals, he appears to be very uninformed," Springer said of Weldon. "There are indeed animals, and a lot of them."
And that’s just those on the ground. There are a number of rivers, streams and lakes throughout the refuge that are home to fish, which Inupiat (Eskimo) people depend upon for sustenance. Marine life, such as seals and whales, exist in the Arctic Ocean.
"We should give fish their due," Payer said.
Weldon acknowledged his overstatement in an interview with PolitiFact Florida but stood by his observations gathered from a congressional trip through the refuge in the 1990s.
"There’s more wildlife in your backyard than that area where they want to drill," he said.
We won’t argue with relative statements, but Weldon got it wrong when he said there is no wildlife in ANWR.
We rate his claim Pants on Fire!
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, "A Sense of the Refuge" booklet, October 2011
YouTube, "Oil on Ice" documentary
Audio of Weldon interview, provided by Central Florida News 13
Interview with Adrian Herrera, Arctic Now spokesman, June 19, 2012
Interview with Dave Weldon, June 20, 2012
Interview with David Payer, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, June 20, 2012
Email interview with Alan Springer, research professor at the University of Alaska’s Institute of Marine Science, June 20, 2012
Email interview with Bruce Woods, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman, June 19-20, 2012
Energy Information Administration report, "Analysis of Crude Oil Production in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge," May 2008
PolitiFact, "Drilling in ANWR would have minimal impact, covering just ‘2,000 out of 2 million acres,’" Sept. 1, 2008
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