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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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Long-term changes in the size of Alaska's goose populations have been mostly positive. Pacific white-fronted goose numbers have grown 6 percent per year since 1999, and the population now sits at a record 600,000 birds. In 2008, spring counts of cackling geese on the Y-K Delta were the second highest on record and contributed to a decade-long increase in cackler numbers. But the biggest success story has been the comeback of Aleutian cackling geese. Once threatened with extinction, the Aleutian goose population now numbers more than 100,000 birds. Unfortunately, Alaska's dusky Canada goose population has not fared nearly as well. These geese breed on Alaska's south coast in the Copper River Delta. In 1964, an earthquake uplifted their nesting grounds by more than 6 feet, triggering an expansion of trees and shrubs, which made nesting geese much more susceptible to terrestrial predators. Today, the dusky Canada goose population remains well below desired levels.

The Future

Ducks Unlimited has traditionally worked in areas important to waterfowl that have lost large amounts of habitat. In these areas, DU focuses on restoring wetlands and permanently protecting remaining habitat. Alaska is different. Most of its waterfowl habitat remains in pristine condition, and almost all of it is publicly owned and protected. Since traditional habitat programs are not needed in Alaska, DU has sought other approaches to waterfowl conservation in the state. For example, DU has collaborated with federal agencies to map much of Alaska's important waterfowl habitat using satellite imagery. These mapping products can inform policy and land use decisions to the benefit of waterfowl.

And while many of Alaska's waterfowl populations are growing and most of its habitats are intact, important questions remain. Why have sea ducks declined? How will global climate change affect the availability of waterfowl habitat in coastal and interior Alaska? Will oil and gas exploration on the Arctic coastal plain negatively affect molting brant and other waterfowl? In the future, DU and its partners in the Sea Duck, Arctic Goose, and Pacific Coast joint ventures can assist in answering these questions and help ensure a bright future for Alaska's waterfowl.

Dr. Mark Petrie and Dr. Fritz Reid are directors of conservation planning in DU's western region. The authors would like to thank the pilot-biologists of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, whose surveys of Alaska's waterfowl made this article possible.

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