Izembek National Wildlife Refuge


Aghileen Pinnacles, Izembek National Wildlife Refuge
Aghileen Pinnacles, Izembek National Wildlife Refuge
Boundary sign at Izembek National Wildlife Refuge

At 315,000 acres, Izembek National Wildlife Refuge is the smallest of Alaska's National Wildlife Refuges. The property is located on the northern side (against the Bering Sea) of the Alaska Peninsula, near the southern end of the peninsula. The heart of the refuge is Izembek Lagoon: a 5-mile wide and 30-mile long coastal ecosystem. This is where you'll find North America's largest bed of eelgrass. The sheer amount of food available here attracts millions of migratory birds (more than 200 species) in season.

Birds aren't the only important species around here: salmon runs in the summer and fall bring out hordes of coastal brown bears. The 5,000 caribou of the Southern Alaska Peninsula Herd live here, too. You'll also find moose, wolverine, mink, muskrat, red fox and gray wolf on the property.

Back in 1960, the State of Alaska took action to protect the Izembek Lagoon and its associated tidal lands as the Izembek State Game Refuge. The Izembek National Wildlife Refuge wraps completely around that area, providing even more protection for the species that hang out here. Almost the entire 150,000-strong flock of Pacific black brant come here every year in the fall. You'll also Taverner's Canada geese and even emperor geese here, too. About 23,000 of the threatened Steller's eider ducks molt, rest and feed at Izembek NWR every year in the fall.

Aerial view in the mountains of Izembek National Wildlife Refuge
An aerial view in the mountains
Red fox at Izembek National Wildlife Refuge
Red fox

Some 300,000 acres of Izembek National Wildlife Refuge have been designated wilderness. The wilderness wraps almost all the way around the Izembek Lagoon. Between the freshwater wetlands, coastal marshes and open waters, this lagoon provides shelter, nesting space and food for millions of migratory birds. The area has been recognized as a Wetland of International Importance, and the American Bird Conservancy has designated the area as a Globally Important Bird Area. However, all this recognition and designation hasn't stopped state and local politicians and residents from wanting to push a 17-mile, one-lane road through the area to connect Cold Bay with King Cove. Environmentalists counter that the road would interfere with the nesting habits of the threatened Black Brant goose, thousands of which call Izembek home in the summer months. It seems it's up to the politicians in Congress to make the decision... (2010: The decision has been made: there's a land swap in process to allow the road to pass and add a chunk of land somewhere else to the wilderness area.)

The refuge headquarters is in Cold Bay, a metropolis of less than 100 people. Access to the area is by air and water only. The Alaska Marine Ferry System serves Cold Bay once a month between April and October but Peninsula Airways flies in and out to Anchorage daily. There are 5 primitive roads that provide some access to the refuge. The roads offer only about 40 miles of route and some of that requires 4WD. For vehicular access, you'll have to check with a local entrepreneur. Cold Bay also offers (year-round) a motel, lodge, a couple of bed & breakfasts and a small grocery store.

Refuge staff administer Izembek NWR, the North Creek and Pavlof Units of Alaska Peninsula NWR and Unimak Island of the Alaska Maritime NWR.

Izembek National Wildlife Refuge wetlands
Wetlands at Izembek National Wildlife Refuge
Izembek National Wildlife Refuge
Izembek National Wildlife Refuge
Lefthand Valley, Izembek Wilderness
Lefthand Valley in the Izembek Wilderness
Along the edge of the Izembek Lagoon wetlands
Along the edge of the Izembek Lagoon wetlands
Map of Izembek National Wildlife Refuge