Foxes feast on Prudhoe scraps

Posted: Monday, April 10, 2000

An Alaska AP Member Exchange,

PRUDHOE BAY (AP) -- At the biggest oil field in North America, the discards from well-fed oil workers provide a feast for arctic foxes. But biologists are concerned that the rich food source is feeding a fox population boom and, perhaps, cutting down local bird populations.

In the wild, arctic foxes live a life somewhere between beggar and thief, stealing bird eggs or trailing polar bears across the ice, feeding on scraps.

But at Prudhoe Bay, even foxes live well. Long ago, they abandoned the polar bear trail in favor of Dumpster diving and landfill lunching.

At the Prudhoe dump on an exquisite arctic dawn, a fox gnawed on what looked like a frozen half hamburger.

''Breakfast time,'' said Steve Gottschalk, program manager for Piquniq Management Corp., which handles Prudhoe Bay trash. Two more foxes dodged over a low garbage mound. One pulled at a plastic bag. The other scuttled away with an unknown delicacy.

Last year, biologists Erich Follmann of the University of Alaska Fairbanks and Philip Martin of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service put radio collars on 10 foxes to track their movements from Prudhoe.

''They never left,'' Martin said.

Strange behavior for a supposedly nomadic scavenger. In the same experiment 17 years ago, one fox journeyed 1,200 miles to Canada's Northwest Territories, Martin said.

This is a rugged environment. Five months of the year, the temperature averages below zero. The wind blows, lifting snow into a wafting white lace that shivers over the ground.

But with the 1968 discovery of the Prudhoe Bay field, scavengers moved in. Bears started lingering around rigs and camps. Foxes, ravens and gulls loitered at the trash bins.

At the urging of government biologists, Piquniq began installing trash bins with bear-proof doors in Deadhorse and Prudhoe last year. They put a fence around the dump and ran electric strands to keep the bears out.

But the bears dig under the fence. The gate was left open one day in March. When the weather is cold, trash bin doors are often left open. Wrestling with a sticky latch at 50 below is not the most appealing part of working in a North Slope kitchen.

The Deadhorse dump remains one of the best places in the state to see the symbol of Alaska's wild. And besides the attraction, there's a deterrent from leaving the area. Bears that wander far from the oil fields often are shot by Eskimo hunters, said Dick Shideler, a state fish and game biologist.

Martin believes area fox populations are also increasing. The locals take scant interest in hunting foxes. Furs have little value.

Frank Long Jr., a Nuiqsut subsistence hunter, sourly shook his head over the arctic fox.

''Nothing to eat there.''

The industry's garbage largess is not evenly distributed across the ecosystem. Scavengers, foxes and bears, benefit. But their traditional prey, notably migrating nesting birds like geese and ducks, suffer. Strengthening one arm of the ecosystem to the detriment of the other has biologists concerned.

When BP built the Endicott Island oil field near Prudhoe in the 1980s, environmentalists fretted that the offshore field would disturb the nearby Howe Island snow goose nesting ground.

Endicott did not bother the birds. But foxes did. In six of the past 10 years, foxes destroyed or severely curbed the nesting season, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.

The threatened spectacled eider and the brant geese both nest on the Slope. Both populations are suffering. No direct link between the birds and fox predations has been made, but foxes are key drivers in other parts of the Arctic.

''The impact of oil is more subtle than you'd expect,'' Martin said.

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