National Geographic : 2013 May
Wrangel Island 63 claim it for the British motherland resulted in four more deaths. In 1926 the Soviets, attempting to extend their sovereignty over Wrangel, forcibly relo- cated Chukchi there from Siberia. A tiny col- ony persisted until the 1970s, when, with the creation of the sanctuary, descendants of the original settlers started being repatriated to the mainland. Because the Corwin party was the first to plant a flag on Wrangel, certain jingoistic groups in the United States have insisted the island is rightfully American soil. One Tea Party blogger last year ranted that President Barack Obama was giving away Wrangel to the “Putin regime” as part of an “apparent war against U.S. energy indepen- dence.” The U.S. State Department, however, has long maintained that the United States asserts no territorial claim to the island—and never has. The region around Wrangel is not known to have substantial oil reserves, and even if it did, its nearly year-round ice would likely make extraction prohibitively difficult and expensive. Thus blessed with a lack of exploitable re- sources, Wrangel has been left alone. Thanks to climate change and the Cold War’s end, the island has become slightly more accessible in re- cent years, and the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment has unveiled plans to develop ecotourism here, but that seems a long way off. For the foreseeable future Wran- gel will remain a natural laboratory for Arctic animals and the humans who study them. Sci- entists who come here say there is something peculiarly haunting and powerful about this raw Pleistocene landscape secreted near the roof of the world. “You feel as though you’ve come to the end of the Earth,” says University of Michi- gan mammoth paleontologist Daniel Fisher. “It’s such a pristine environment,” says Irina Menyushina, who has spent 32 seasons on Wran- gel Island conducting snowy owl and arctic fox studies. “You feel yourself so close to the pri- meval processes of the universe—birth, death, survival, the ebb and surge of populations. Every year when I’m back on Wrangel, I am reinfected by the Arctic.” j Wrangel’s sprawling gravel spits are home to large haul-outs of Pacific walruses, especially since climate change has made their preferred habitat—the ice pack—ever more tenuous. A healthy adult like this big female usually holds its own in a fight with a polar bear.