Sportsmen scored a major victory yesterday when Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar announced critical wildlife areas in Alaska would remain protected as the nation began opening the National Petroleum Reserve to development.

Located on the famed North Slope of the Brooks Range, the 23 million-acre reserve is the largest block of federally managed land in the United States. It has long been a battleground between energy interests, who wanted the entire area opened to drilling, and wildlife advocates, who wanted to set aside just 13 percent of reserve to protect habitat critical to migratory birds and caribou. The Obama Administration chose the wildlife-friendly alternative.

Sportsmen’s groups like Ducks Unlimited and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership had lobbied heavily for that choice.

Applauding the decision, DU pointed out it protected “the Arctic’s greatest migratory bird nesting and molting areas and is the summer home to hundreds of thousands of waterfowl and shorebirds. It provides critical molting areas for up to 30 percent of the entire population of Pacific Flyway brant, 25 percent of the midcontinent population of greater white-fronted geese, and a growing number of lesser snow and Canada geese.”

The TRCP highlighted the added importance of the area as habitat for the Western Arctic caribou herd, the largest in Alaska, currently estimated at 348,000 animals.

Whit Fosburgh, TRCP President and CEO, also pointed out the decision tracked the guiding philosophy of responsible energy development supported by the sportsman’s group, because it “conserves the most important habitat in the reserve, while sacrificing little in terms of oil production.”