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Wrangel Island Bioregion 1

Established: 1976
Size: 795,650 ha (7,957 km2)
Buffer Zone: 1,430,000 ha
(14,300 km2)

Contact information:
Bove, Leonid Leonidovich, Director

Russia 686870
Magadanskaya Oblast Chukotskaya A.O.
Shmidtovsky raion, s.Ushakovskoye

Wrangel Island Zapovednik

Wrangel Island ZapovednikThe wind howls over Wrangel Island Zapovednik for much of the year. The winters are long and dark and the sun does not appear from November 22 to January 22. Snow blankets the landscape for 240 days of the year. Yet in the spring, tens of thousands of birds arrive to nest on the jagged cliffs, walruses gather on narrow spits to give birth, and female polar bears emerge from their dens with newborn cubs. In the summer, the tundra bursts into life, flowers color the landscape, and rivers run wild in the lush valleys. Wrangel Island and nearby Herald Island are the only land habitats for wildlife in the Chukchi Sea, northwest of the Bering Strait. Russian scientists called for creation of a nature reserve on the islands to protect the delicate Arctic ecosystem from growing human pressures.

Photo© 1996 Nikita Ovsyanikov

Zapovednik Images
Zapovednik Facts
Articles featuring this reserve in Russian Conservation News journal

Articles featuring this nature reserve in Russian Conservation News journal:


Russian Conservation NewsWrangel Island, the arctic enigma, RCN #25, page 4, 2001

Images of Wrangel Island
Click on each photo to see a large version.

© 1996 Nikita Ovsyanikov

Walruses use their long tusks to anchor themselves to ice floes.

Snow Owl
© 1996 Nikita Ovsyanikov

Snowy owls nest on the island, feeding mainly on lemmings.

Polar Bears
© 1996 Nikita Ovsyanikov

Polar bears are social and playful animals.

Artic Fox
© 1996 Nikita Ovsyanikov

Arctic foxes scavenge the coast for food, sometimes preying on seal cubs.

Ancient Tundra
© 1996 Nikita Ovsyanikov

Spared during the last Ice Age, relics of ancient tundra steppe remain on Wrangel Island.

© 1996 Nikita Ovsyanikov

An adult walrus is not easy prey even for the mighty white bear.

Wrangel Island
© 1996 Nikita Ovsyanikov

Wrangel and Herald Islands are the only land masses in the Chukchi Sea.

Polar Bear Dens
© 1996 Nikita Ovsyanikov

Rocky crevasses fill with snow, creating excellent sites for polar bear dens.




Zapovednik Facts:

Polar bears (Ursus maritimus), Pacific walruses (Odeobenus rosmarus), and snow geese (Anser caerulescens) attracted hunters and settlers to Wrangel in the first half of the 20th century. The decline of these animal populations was one of the reasons for creation of the Wrangel Island Zapovednik. Snow geese originally nested on the Russian mainland from Taimyr to Chukotka, but the large colonies on Wrangel are the last remaining populations in Asia today.

The Pacific walrus is the largest pinniped in the Northern Hemisphere, weighing more than a ton and measuring up to 13 ft (4 m) long. More than 80,000 walruses crowd ice floes and rocky spits of the islands during the short summer breeding season, basking in the sun and diving in the icy waters to feed on mollusks. Many of the females swim 140 km from the mainland to give birth to their young on the secluded islands. The young walruses’ only natural predator is the mighty polar bear, the largest terrestrial carnivore in the Northern Hemisphere.

Despite its fierce reputation, the polar bear is a curious and calm creature. The polar bear is protected throughout the Arctic and is listed in the Russian and IUCN Red Books of endangered species. Wrangel and Herald Islands have the largest number of polar bear dens in the Russian Arctic. From 350-500 pregnant bears den on the two islands, or 80% of the breeding population in the Chukotka region. Some areas support 6-12 bears per square kilometer. The majority of the bear population remains at sea throughout the year searching for prey on the ice, returning to land only when the ice floes have melted completely. Thick skin and long tusks make mature walruses difficult prey for even the strongest bears, thus seals are the main staple in their diet. The ringed seal (Phoca hispida) and bearded seal (Erignathus barbatus) are plentiful on the island and fish in openings in the ice in even the coldest seasons. CLICK HERE for more information on the polar bear.

The Arctic fox (Alopex lagopus) also inhabits the islands, feeding on Siberian and collared lemmings (Dycrostonix torquatus, Lemmus sibirica) and remains from polar bear kills. Settlers introduced domestic reindeer (Rangier tarandus) to Wrangel Island in the 1950s, although archeological findings suggest they may have lived there in historic times. Well-adapted to the harsh conditions, the reindeer quickly began to damage the delicate tundra ecosystems, cropping vegetation in areas and trampling nesting sites for snow geese, in addition to eating their eggs. When the government created the zapovednik, it undertook to limit reindeer numbers to 1-1,500 individuals. Musk-oxen (Ovibus moschatus) were reintroduced to the island in 1975, with an initial population of 20 animals. These wooly mammoths are the largest Arctic ungulates, and their thick coats are well-suited for living on Wrangel.

Fifty species of migratory birds and waterfowl come to the islands each year to nest. Eight kinds of seabirds nest in large rookeries on the cliffs and rocky shores of Wrangel and Herald Islands. The black-legged kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla), pelagic cormorant (Phalacrocorax pelagicus), and glaucous gull (Larus hyperboreus) are common birds in the clamor, feeding on the abundance of fish and marine invertebrates in the relatively shallow waters. The birds’ feces in turn provide important nutrients for phytoplankton, forming the base of the food chain.

The interior of Wrangel Island provides protection from the cold winds for both birds and animals. The snowy owl (Nyctea scandiaca) builds its nest in a depression on the ground, feeding primarily on lemmings. Brent geese (Branta bernicla), eider ducks (Somerteria mollisima), and snow geese frequent the more than 900 lakes to raise their young. Birds listed in the Russian Red Book of Rare and Endangered Species include Ross’ gull (Rhodostethia rosea), buff-breasted sandpiper (Tryngites subruficollis), and spoon-billed sandpiper (Eurynorhynchus pygmeus).



Wrangel Island was largely unscathed during the last ice age. Parts of its tundra-steppe look much as they did a million years ago during the Pleistocene epoch. The island location prevented colonization by mainland species in recent times, contributing to the evolution of a number of plants found nowhere else. Annually, the temperature rises above freezing for only two and a half months, enabling more than 380 plant species to flourish. In the brief summer, the thin mat of soil laid over permafrost is covered with a blanket of colorful flowers, grasses, and sedges. A colorful mosaic of pink dryads (Dryas punctata) and pasqueflowers (Pulsatilla nuttaliana), exquisite Castellea flowers (Castilleja elegans), and yellow poppies (Papaver spp.) bursts into life for two months of the year. There are 17 species of Arctic poppies on Wrangel, five of which are native to the island, including Papaver gorodkovii and P. lapponicum.

Most vegetation on Wrangel is low to the ground, but dwarf willows (Salix spp.) and other shrubs can reach a meter in height in areas sheltered from the wind. The central parts of Wrangel are warmer than the coast, extending the brief growing period. The valleys collect moisture to form sphagnum swamps and sedge bogs. Upslope, mountains are clothed in grasses, flowers, and occasional shrubs, succeeding to lichens and mosses on the high montane ridges. Rare and endemic species of plants on the islands include the Oxytropic wrangeli and Poa vrangelica.

Geographical Features

Until 50,000 years ago, Wrangel and Herald Islands were part of the Beringia land mass joining Asia and America. Separated from the mainland by the rising oceans, they now rest between the Chukchi and East Siberian seas. Today, ten atmospheric glaciers dot Wrangel, formed by blowing ice and snow. Three parallel mountain ranges dissect the island running from east to west, sheltering wide river valleys between their towering ridges. The largest mountain rises more than 1000 m above the sea in the central mountain range.

The small Herald Island, only 8 km2, is a massive chunk of granitic gneiss jutting 380 m above the sea. In 1849, a British search party discovered the island while looking for a lost explorer, and named it after the rescue ship. It was another 20 years before an American whaling ship discovered the larger Wrangel Island, 60 km west of Herald. It was named for the explorer and Russian Navy Lieutenant F. P. von Vrangel who had searched for the island after hearing about it from the native people of Chukchi. He traveled from Chukotka over the ice by dog sled several times in 1821-1823 but never reached the island.

Wrangel Island straddles the 180o meridian, with half of its territory in the Western Hemisphere and the other half in the Eastern. The islands lie north of the Arctic Circle and are bisected by the 71o parallel. An ocean of ice surrounds the land in the winter, forming an extension to the terrestrial habitat of polar bears and arctic foxes. The islands form the only obstacle to encroaching winter ice and play an important role in keeping areas of water open for walruses, seals, and polar bears that depend on the ocean year round.

Conservation Status

Uncontrolled hunting by explorers and settlers necessitated granting protected status to Wrangel and Herald Islands. They hunted snow geese for food, for both people and sled dogs. Introduced reindeer trampled goose nesting areas and ate their eggs. Reindeer carcasses sustained populations of the Arctic fox, which in turn preyed heavily on the baby geese and eggs. A refuge (zakaznik) was created on Wrangel in 1960 in attempt to halt the decline of the goose population. The population subsequently recovered from fewer than 50,000 in the early 1970s to more than 200,000 today thanks to hunting restrictions, limitations on the size of domestic reindeer herds, and US-Russia bilateral cooperation on conserving this migratory species.

Settlers and explorers also hunted walruses and polar bears on the islands in the first half of the 20th century. In the 1930s, as many as 70 bears were killed per year. The majority of bears killed were females and their cubs as they emerged from their dens to be shot point-blank by hunters. Nevertheless, bears continued to come to Wrangel and Herald to den, as it was the only piece of solid land in the Chukchi Sea. This resulted in widespread decline of the regional population. The Soviet government banned hunting for polar bears in 1956. In 1973, the five Arctic countries--Russia, Canada, US, Denmark (Greenland), and Norway--agreed to restrict hunting of polar bears worldwide, although hunting by indigenous peoples is still allowed in some countries. Since the complete ban on hunting in Russia, bear populations have begun to rebound. Currently, threats to polar bears on Wrangel Island are limited to poaching for their skins and gall bladders, and occasional kills by local people for food. The effects of pollution and global warming on the bears are largely unknown.

The main environmental threats to Wrangel Island come from the military base, weather station, mining base, airstrip, and other facilities. Scientists have replaced hunters and snowmobiles have replaced dogsleds. The creation of the zapovednik in 1976 was an attempt to stop the growing pressure on the delicate Arctic tundra from settlements, but a lack of funds severely hinders enforcement activities. The zapovednik staff relies on imports of food and fuel from the mainland, and has even been evacuated during times of severe shortages. The severity of the funding situation also increases the likelihood that potentially harmful yet profitable activities such as tourism will be pursued. Pollution and disturbance should be kept to a minimum to allow these remote areas to remain relatively free of human influence.



Text by Laura Williams.

Ovsyanikov, N. 1996. Polar bears: Living with the white bear. Voyager Press, Inc., MN. 144 pp. CLICK HERE for excerpts of this book.

Stewart, J.M. 1991. The Nature of Russia. Cross River Press, NY. 192 pp.

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