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September 2, 08

NEWS / United States, Russia Join in Efforts to Protect Arctic Wildlife

28 August 2008
United States, Russia Join in Efforts to Protect Arctic Wildlife

Wildlife experts from both nations long have conducted joint projects
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Seagoing research platform (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
The Tiglax is a seagoing research platform for various projects within the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.
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Seagoing research platform (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
The Tiglax is a seagoing research platform for various projects within the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.

By Dominick DiPasquale
Special Correspondent

Washington -- The United States and Russia have amassed a strong record of partnership in wildlife conservation -- dating back more than 35 years to the Nixon-Brezhnev era -- that has benefited endangered species throughout the Arctic.

“Even during the Cold War, politics never got in the way of cooperation,” said Peter Ward of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Division of International Conservation.

Today, approximately 100 American and Russian scientists take part annually in exchange programs that emphasize researching and safeguarding rare or endangered wildlife species and their habitats in both nations. More than half of these conservation efforts involve Alaska, Siberia and the Russian Far East.

Projects carried out in 2007 and 2008 have ranged from identifying habitat critical to birdlife in the Bering Sea region, to the tagging of beluga whales in the coastal waters off Russia’s Chukotka Peninsula, to workshops on brown bear conservation.

Ward and Steven Kohl, chief of the FWS’ Russia-East Asia Branch, in a recent interview with America.gov described the history of scientific cooperation that American and Russian wildlife biologists have forged over the years to their mutual benefit.

Although such collaboration officially began in 1972 when the United States and the Soviet Union signed an environmental agreement (renegotiated with Russia in 1994 after the dissolution of the Soviet Union), Kohl said that as far back as 1939, Russian ornithologists were reporting to FWS their sightings of migratory birds that had been banded in the United States.

Migratory birds, along with marine mammals such as polar bears, walruses and sea otters, remains one of the largest areas of scientific collaboration between the two nations. Two hundred species of birds have the ability to fly across the Bering Strait that separates Alaska from Siberia.
Spectacled eider (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
The spectacled eider is a type of sea duck found in Russia and the United States.

The importance of tracking such migratory birds, Kohl said, has grown with the threat of avian flu.

“If avian flu is carried by wild birds to North America,” he said, “it is likely to arrive in Alaska first.”

From the start the Arctic was the focus of the two nations’ shared wildlife conservation efforts, given the geographic proximity of that region to both countries. The United States and Russia share not just many of the same species but also populations of those species whose ranges span both countries.

Formal government-to-government cooperation was augmented in the 1990s by more institutional linkages between universities and research institutes in each country. The political climate in Russia had thawed following the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Kohl stressed that this joint wildlife conservation effort is a partnership of equals, since Russia “has top-notch wildlife biologists and scientists.”

“There is a genuine sense among Americans and Russians that they can learn from each other,” he said, adding that hundreds of scientists from both nations have worked together, in some cases for as long as 20 years, and developed close personal relationships.

One of the most effective collaborative programs for protecting Russia’s rich biodiversity has been an FWS small-grants program to help Russia’s extensive network of nature reserves and national parks acquire much-needed practical equipment such as radios and patrol vehicles and to make infrastructure improvements. Averaging only $5,000 to $7,500 per grant, the program has helped 80 reserves and parks since 1995 at a total cost of less than $1.2 million.

The two nations are also part of the broader Arctic Council, a high-level forum established in 1996 that links the governments and indigenous peoples of the eight polar nations -- the United States, Russia, Canada, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Iceland and Denmark (including Greenland) -- in addressing issues of environmental protection and sustainable development in the Arctic region.

The FWS’ Alaska regional office is the lead U.S. government agency in the Arctic Council’s working group on Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna. In that capacity, FWS staff in Alaska direct international research efforts on polar seabirds and on developing a comprehensive map of Arctic vegetation that will create a baseline against which to measure future changes.

Cooperative Arctic conservation efforts, whether bilateral ones such as the U.S.-Russian effort of the last 35 years or multilateral ones such as the more recent Arctic Council, have taken on added urgency in recent years as global warming threatens the polar icecap and a world searching for new energy sources turns its attention to this region. An assessment released in July by the U.S. Geological Survey reported that the area north of the Arctic Circle holds an estimated 90 billion barrels of oil and 1,670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas that is recoverable using existing technology and industry practices.



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