Aleutian Canada geese take off again

Posted on 01 December 1999

In the 1950s Aleutian Canada geese were feared extinct, but a recovery programme has achieved spectacular results not only in saving the birds but also in restoring native biodiversity in part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge
Anchorage, Alaska: Aleutian geese closely resemble several other types of small Canada geese, which means they are often hunted by mistake as they migrate or settle on their wintering grounds in Oregon or California.

But while hunters have played a big part in keeping down the population of Aleutian Canada geese, perhaps the main cause of their decline has been the loss of safe nesting sites.

Aleutian geese had adapted to nesting habitats on the hillsides of remote volcanoes in the sub-arctic North Pacific Ocean in Alaska and Siberia, with no native land mammals. Then foxes were introduced for fur production � by the Russians in the 1700s and later by the Americans in the early 1900s. Nearly every breeding island was stocked with foxes. The geese were preyed on during incubation and rearing periods, as well as in the annual wing moult when even the adult birds are unable to fly.

By about 1940, the Aleutian Canada geese were probably wiped out on all but three small islands. In these islands breeding habitats remained safe because boat landings were too difficult for the fox trappers to operate.

But trigger-happy hunters and foxes were not the only threats suffered by the geese. Their migration and wintering areas to the south were changing as land was developed, and population growth in Oregon and California reduced the space available to the geese. Disease broke out, killing numerous birds as the geese and other waterfowl became concentrated in fewer areas.

The Aleutian Canada geese were included on the first list of endangered species in 1967. A formal recovery programme began in the early 1970s to study the natural history of the only known breeding population, at Buldir Island, and to try to locate additional breeding populations. A 1975 survey reported only 790 individuals.

Biologists discovered the migration routes of the geese and their wintering areas by banding the birds. Once the migration and wintering areas were found, hunting was stopped and important habitats secured either through acquisition or by agreement with landowners. While the main migration and wintering areas were being made safe, the foxes were removed from former breeding islands. Breeding populations were re-established as wild geese began to return to some islands, and birds reared in captivity were moved to others.

The geese responded well to the programme, and by 1999 the population had increased to approximately 30,000 individuals. "The recovery of this unique bird shows how effective the Endangered Species Act can be through work with partners, and through innovative scientific techniques and on the ground cooperation," says David B Allen, Regional Director for Alaska of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Aleutian Canada goose is no longer considered threatened with extinction and it has been proposed for "de-listing" by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. A final decision will be made within a year as to whether the goose population has recovered sufficiently to survive without the special protection status of the Endangered Species Act.

If so, the geese will still fall under the protection of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and a five-year programme will monitor them to make sure their population does not decline in the future.

While benefitting the Aleutian Canada geese, this recovery project has also helped to restore native biodiversity in the Aleutian Islands, a unique area designated an International Biosphere Reserve and part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.

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*Vernon Byrd is with the US Fish and Wildlife Service