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Waterfowl in the Last Frontier

Alaska has experienced a waterfowl population boom, but future development and climate change could threaten the birds and their habitat
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by Mark Petrie, Ph.D., and Fritz Reid, Ph.D.

Many of us in the lower 48 will never hunt in Alaska. Separated by a four-figure airline ticket and some intimidating geography, the state can feel a little out of reach. But Alaska is generous with its birds. Nearly 20 percent of all waterfowl get their start here, and all four flyways get a share of these ducks and geese.

The "Alaska Territory" was actually purchased from the Russians in 1867. It was something of a fire sale. For $7.2 million the U.S. government received 365 million acres of land at about two cents an acre. Apparently the tsar thought he had all the tundra and forest he needed.

Alaska is big. Texas and California would fit in its borders with room for New England to stretch its legs. But perhaps the state's most impressive resource is water. Alaska has nearly 175 million acres of wetlands, more than all other states combined.

As Alaska celebrates 50 years of statehood, we salute its contribution to North America's waterfowl populations. Unfortunately, many states and provinces continue to lose habitat. As these losses mount, Alaska's role in maintaining healthy populations of ducks and geese has grown. Let's examine this role and look at some remarkable changes in breeding duck numbers in the state. To do that, we'll start with a brief description of Alaska's waterfowl habitat—no small task in a state of nearly 600,000 square miles.

The Habitat

For the sake of this discussion, let's divide Alaska into four areas: the Arctic coastal plain, the west coast, the interior, and the south coast. The Arctic coastal plain lies north of the Brooks Mountains and stretches to the coasts of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. The Arctic coastal plain totals about 45,000 square miles and consists of poorly drained tundra with continuous permafrost. In spring, snow and ice on top of this permafrost melts and collects in shallow "thaw lakes." The density of wetlands here is staggering. Between Barrow and Prudhoe Bay, 85 percent of some areas is covered with water. Teshekpuk Lake lies in the middle of this coastal plain and provides some of North America's most important habitat for molting geese. Here too is America's National Petroleum Reserve and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). As oil prices have soared, the debate over drilling in ANWR and the coastal plain became front page news.

Alaska's west coast extends from Kotzebue Sound and the Seward Peninsula to the Bristol Bay Lowlands and includes the Alaska Peninsula and Aleutian Islands. This area has 87,000 square miles of waterfowl habitat, most of which is subarctic tundra bordering the Bering Sea. Much of this region's habitat consists of large river deltas, near-shore lagoons, and tidal flats. Nearly half of all waterfowl habitat in western Alaska occurs in the famed Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta (Y-K Delta), the largest river delta in western North America. Most of the Y-K Delta is part of a 19.5-million-acre national wildlife refuge, an area larger than Maine and one of the most important waterfowl habitat areas on the continent. Alaska's west coast also includes Izembek Lagoon with its 85,000 acres of eelgrass beds—the largest in the world—which provide vital food for staging Pacific brant.

Interior Alaska is framed by the Brooks Range in the north and an irregular boundary of the Kuskokwim, Alaska, Wrangell, and Chugach mountains in the south. The region boasts 88,000 square miles of high-quality waterfowl habitat. Boreal forest, not tundra, dominates this part of the state. Although Alaska's interior is mountainous, it contains several major river systems, including the Yukon, Koyukuk, Innoko, Kuskokwim, and Tanana. Most waterfowl in the interior occur along these mighty rivers, where seasonal flooding and long daylight hours combine to provide a burst of summer productivity. The largest and best known of these floodplain wetland systems is the Yukon Flats.

Alaska's south coast stretches in a 1,000-mile arc from Cook Inlet to Ketchikan and is bordered by high mountains in the north and the Gulf of Alaska in the south. Eighty percent of Alaska's people live in this coastal arc. Most of this area is comprised of northern rainforest, and its winters are mild. The south coast's most important waterfowl habitat includes the coastal marshes of the Cook Inlet and several large river deltas, most notably the Copper and Stikine river deltas.

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