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Ancient land of 'Beringia' gets protection from US, Russia

Chukot-TINRO

Tens of thousands of walruses make their home in Beringia, including these seen last fall at Cape Serdtse-Kamen in Chukotka, Russia.

You might have missed it, but the ancient land of Beringia has gotten some extra protection from superpowers Russia and the United States. 

That's right, Beringia -- 2,800 miles stretching from Siberia, across the Bering and Chukchi seas, through Alaska and into Canada's British Columbia. For thousands of years, Beringia even had a 1,000-mile-long land bridge that emerged when sea level dropped.

OK, so it's not an actual nation, but Beringia does have its own heritage of people divided by borders but united culturally -- and a natural kingdom of whales, polar bears, walruses and seals.


 "From the diversity of its Arctic wildlife, both on land and within its waters, to the bounty it provides that sustains cultures on both sides of the U.S.-Russian border, Beringia is home to a kingdom of wildlife and cultural riches, deserving of protection in perpetuity," Cristian Samper, president of the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, told NBC News.

"This announcement," he added, "brings us one step closer to that reality."

Samper was talking about a meeting between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her Russian peer earlier this month, where both nations agreed to work toward "a transboundary area of shared Beringian heritage" by 2013. 

National Park Service

That designation would create closer ties between two U.S. national parks -- the Bering Land Bridge Natural Preserve and the Cape Krusenstern National Monument -- with Russia's soon-to-be-designated Beringia National Park.

"Park managers and researchers from both countries will be able to increase their efforts to conserve this unique ecosystem as well as the cultural traditions and languages of the indigenous people on both sides of the (Bering) strait," Clinton said at the meeting on Sept. 8.

Even before the announcement, the U.S. National Park Service has had a program since the 1990s to promote Beringia, a term first coined in 1937.

Bob Gerhard / National Park Service

Anadyr, the capital of Russia's Chukotka Autonomous Region, is part of Beringia and faces the Bering Sea.

"As one of the world's great ancient crossroads, Beringia may hold solutions to puzzles about who were the first people to populate North America, how and when they traveled, and how they survived under such harsh climatic conditions," a website dedicated to Beringia reads.


Watch a video on Beringian petroglyphs.

The park service program stems from a 1990 announcement by then President George H. W. Bush and Soviet President Mikhael Gorbachev to establish an international park spanning the Bering Strait. 

A full-fledged international park never came about, in part because of suspicions by native groups. But the new, smaller approach is aimed at easing those concerns.

Vic Knox / National Park Service

Native festivals like this one are typical in Anadyr, a city in Russia's autonomous region of Chukotka that is part of the wider region known as Beringia.

The Wildlife Conservation Society is among the environmental groups excited about stronger cross-border ties. It already has a "Beringia Program" that looks at:

  • How shipping in formerly ice-covered seas will affect marine life and indigenous people who rely on that for food.
  • The threat walruses face from shrinking sea ice, which they rely on to rest while at sea. Less sea ice has led to overcrowding and even walruses crushed to death as they "haul out" by the thousands to rest on beaches.
  • The impacts of human development on birds from around the world that nest and breed in the Arctic tundra.

Chukot-TINRO

Scientists are seeing more of these massive "haul outs" by walruses. These were seen last fall on Russia's Cape Serdtse-Kamen, part of the larger Beringia region.

The organization's "Beringia Program" manager sees the U.S.-Russia effort as keeping recent momentum moving forward. Both native peoples and wildlife, Martin Robards told NBC News, face living "in a region warming at twice the global average, while at the same time, adjusting to a rapid influx of new development interests."

As for the variety of wildlife, "it's phenomenal," Robards said. "In the fall and spring animals come through the Bering Strait -- whales, polar bears, walruses and seals."

That wealth makes it easy for Robards to spend his time on Beringia. But getting its importance across to others can be problematic, so having two superpowers raise Beringia's profile is a big plus.

"It does need explaining at times," he admits.

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