DU Podcast Transcript: Ep. 34 – Band Reporting and Band Targeting

Hosts Dr. Mike Brasher and Chris Jennings are joined by Dr. Mark Lindberg, professor at University of Alaska, Fairbanks, Institute of Arctic Biology to discuss the ramifications of band targeting

© Michael Furtman

Clay Baird: Welcome to the Ducks Unlimited podcast. The only podcast about all things waterfowl. From hunting insights to science based discussions about ducks, geese and issues affecting waterfowl and wetlands conservation in North America. We bring the resource to you, the DU podcast with your host, Chris Jennings and Dr.Mike Brasher.

Mike Brasher: Welcome back to the Ducks Unlimited podcast. I am joined again today by my cohost Chris Jennings and we also welcome back into the show, our special guest, Dr.Mark Lindberg, professor of wildlife ecology at the Institute of Arctic Biology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and Mark I will say that is a pretty cool name for a place to work, the Institute of Arctic Biology. Thanks for finding the time to get back with us.

Mark Lindberg: You bet. Yeah, it is a pretty cool place to work.

Mike Brasher: Yeah, and what we are going to do today on this episode is follow up from where we left off last time. The previous episode that we recorded with you highlighted the importance of waterfowl hunters in collecting data that we, as waterfowl managers, across North America use for a variety of purposes. Ensuring that we are managing waterfowl populations appropriately. We talked a great deal about the importance of that data collection, the importance of hunters playing their part and collecting reliable information for us to use in a lot of that decision making.

Mike Brasher: We wanted to pick up this time talking a little bit more about that and using banding band reporting as an example. That is one of the data collection method by hunters that will be most familiar and many hunters will have had their own encounter and had with a band and had the opportunity to report that. We were talking a little bit before this about some changes that occurred with the method of reporting a few decades ago. Why don't we pick up there and let you talk a little bit about when that happened and how that created a bit of a change in this interaction between hunters and their role for reporting this information.

Mark Lindberg: Yeah, sure. I think it's been only in the last couple of decades that we have really started to understand and appreciate how valuable the information is we get from hunters and how important that is in our decision process. It has only been in the last couple of decades that we started to solicit return of banded birds that hunters have harvested. Again, prior to that, just a really cryptic message about writing Washington DC. We went to an 800 phone number reporting and now to online reporting and the reporting rates have doubled. I think we are starting to recognize that educating hunters about the value of that information is so important in increasing the amount and the quality of data we get from them. That banding information is used in a number of ways. It tells us about how birds are distributed, their migration patterns, and importantly for harvest regulations, how well they survive. From band return information, we can tell survival rates of those birds for the year.

Chris Jennings: You know, hunters are paying for this program through the Pittman-Robertson Act. That is something that hunters should, why would you not want to participate in a program that you are already paying for? Should be something that hunters keep in mind, for sure.

Mike Brasher: To do so in the best manner possible. Going forward, and we hear it all the time about how state agencies, federal agencies are facing shrinking budgets and increasingly, if anything, our reliance on data collected by citizens, by waterfowl hunters in this conversation, is going to increase. It becomes even more imperative that the information that we are receiving from those individuals is reliable and that we are getting all the information possible. Mark, this is where your background in mathematics, quantitative ecology, can really help us understand some of that. The more information we get, the greater the confidence we have in the information, in the estimates that we're deriving from. That really is important when we are making decisions about how to manage wildlife populations. We will probably get into that a little bit. I think we wanted to talk about Brant. It is a specific case of the importance of banding data. Mark, why don't you kick us off here and tell us a little bit about Brant and some of the work that you've done in this regard.

Mark Lindberg: Sure, yeah, I've worked on Black brants and Pacific coast species and I got started in 1990 when I started working on them for my PhD research at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where I am now employed, and amazing birds. By far my favorite goose species and one of my favorite waterfowl species, but they breed in the coastal sub Arctic, Arctic regions of Alaska in the Western Arctic of Canada up into Russia. Then in the fall most of the population, the entire population of a couple hundred thousand birds, stage largely at Izembek National Wildlife Refuge near Cold Bay, Alaska on the tip of the Alaska peninsula. There they store fat and nutrients for migration and some of them take a nonstop migration from Izembek to Baja, Mexico and some, what is it, 55 hours or so of continuous flights at estimated rates of 90 kilometers an hour. It's quite a feat.

Mark Lindberg: More and more of those birds are staying there through the winter now. Some estimates as high as 60% of the population are now spending the winter in Alaska for a variety of reasons and then they all trickle back in the spring. Not nonstop migration, but they moved back on the breeding grounds and do it all over again. If you've watched Brant in flight they are spectacular. I have watched them many years on the breeding grounds chasing gulls away from their nest in and arid pursuit and actually mid-flight reaching out and fighting the gull to drive them away. They are incredible in flight.

Mike Brasher: Yeah. Brant are a particularly interesting population or species of waterfowl for us to have a conversation about the importance of reliable reporting of data because so many individuals, such a high percentage of that population, is banded. That gives us an opportunity to talk about something that we see references to this occasionally in social media. I think you made a post a few weeks ago that has received a fair bit of attention and it provides a great example of the intersection of the role that hunters play in reporting the data and then potential consequences for a certain population of birds. This issue is something that is often referred to as band targeting and I know it is something that you've thought a little bit about. You have posted on it and offered some comments on it. We wanted to use that as an example to explore this issue of reliability of data and how that sort of manifests in some uncertainty and ultimately how it influences our decision making. Tell us a little bit about this concept of band targeting. What is it? How widespread is it? What do we need to know about it?

Mark Lindberg: Yeah, so a little bit more background on Brant, just to orient. We have been banning Brant in big numbers, I guess, since 1984. I now lead one of the projects that has a focus on that effort and we mark brant with metal leg bands, which most duck hunters are familiar with and we also put a visible tarsal tag on the other leg, a plastic tag that has a three character code on it. Those metal bands are not that visible, but tarsal tags can be and people look for them and target them through practices like landing birds. It is roughly called. Hunter might watch a flock of the decoys in, wait till they extend their leg and then try to target the bird that has a visible marker on his leg. That, in turn, results in more banded birds being harvested than normally would be.

Mike Brasher: Now when you say normally would be, you mean sort of by random chance alone? If they hadn't seen that band to begin with, right?

Mark Lindberg: That's right.

Mike Brasher: Yeah. And that so statistically that's kind of what we're as that's the way we expect things to operate. We expect these birds to be harvested irrespective of whether they, they have a band.

Mark Lindberg: Exactly. And I don't think hunters fully appreciate that the Mark sample of birds that we make illusions about the rest of the population from is a small fraction of the total population. So any given year we Mark a by one to 2% of brand in the total population, so less than 5% of the total population is actually marked. And we use that, that sample to make conclusions about the other 95% of the birds. And so if we have targeting or other practices that bias that data on the Mark sample, it has a huge effect on our ability to reliably make good decisions about that population as a whole.

Chris Jennings: How did that, how did that data show itself like to get you to be alarmed that people could potentially be targeting these banded birds? Is that something that you saw spike in the information that was provided or were you seeing a higher percentage of banded birds being reported? What kind of triggered this to be a concern and not, and I ask just as a Hunter who hunted a lot of ducks. I have hunted a lot of geese. I have never really been with anyone who has targeted bands. I'm just kind of concerned as to where, curious as to where that concern popped up to you.

Mark Lindberg: Yeah, there's been a number of reports to us about individuals doing that and targeting intentionally. We were getting word of that from some reliable sources. Then in the data itself we have seen declines in the survival rate. The main thing we estimate from those bands is how well the individual survived. The population survives. For young brants, in the last couple of decades, their survival rate has gone from about 60% to 30% a year.

Mark Lindberg: Even more concern is we have seen some declines in adult female survival and they are the ones you know, producing the eggs and the young and so they are really important. The declines had been much more modest than them, but there is still declines in the last couple of decades about 10%. Those signals both reports of people targeting and the data showing some declines alarmed us and we, at this stage, can't tell how much of that decline may be attributable to band targeting. We don't know. Well you can do some pretty simple math to figure out that you don't need to shoot very many more bands for targeting to have a negative effect on that survival rate estimate. Again, I think what hunters don't appreciate is how small fraction of the population is actually marked and therefore how little you have to change the number of birds that are shot, markers that are shot, to have a big effect on that data.

Chris Jennings: Is that the same with brant? Is that only 5% of the total population is banded or was that an overall estimate?

Mark Lindberg: Yeah, that's a rough estimate. Like I said, we mark one to 2% per year and then those birds, some of them will live 20 plus years, not most of them. Year after year or we accumulate birds in the population that are marked. Again, for that year, that cohort we call it, we are only basing conclusions on their survival based on one or 2% of the population. We are talking about a couple thousand birds.

Chris Jennings: Has there been any thought to modifying that tarsal band from like a bright color to something that is a little less visible to kind of deter this action?

Mark Lindberg: Yeah, that's a fair question. We look for those bands in subsequent years after we mark them and we gather data by reading those codes of those bands, not harvesting them in subsequent summers. Having a visible band is helpful for us because we are looking at them through cameras and spotting scopes to gather that information. Also it allows us to get that information without handling burden. We don't have to catch it again. There is a lot of value in having those tags out there, but there is some merit to what you say and we need to do our part as well to not put a target on the back of those birds, if you will. There is discussions about what colors we should be using. That said, my appeal to hunters is, again, back to the first episode on Citizen Scientists, if hunters appreciate why band targeting isn't a good idea and how we need that reliable information, I hope they will make the decision not to target bands, regardless of the color. That is my appeal. That is my hope that if we empower hunters with this knowledge, they will make the right decisions.

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Mike Brasher: Mark, going back a little bit here, you mentioned that you had seen survival rates, I think, of the young birds go from 60% to 30% in some instances and, presumably, with this idea of band targeting, you don't know if that decline in survival is a result of actual declines or if it could be band targeting and then those bands being reported. Is that a correct way of understanding that?

Mark Lindberg: That's a correct way of understanding it? Yeah, for sure. We certainly don't think all that decline is a result of band targeting. We don't think that for a minute, but we are concerned about that influencing those results and we are starting analysis now that will allow us to tease that out. We can figure out how much of that decline is the result of targeting and that analysis is getting underway. Yeah. Again, appeal of the hunters is right now what we know is survival rates decline. We know that. And so we're starting to think about ways to manage that species to improve that survival rate. If we do not have reliable information, we might put that energy to things that are not as important as we thought. Again, it is not helping the brant. The target band.

Chris Jennings: Now, just from the reporting data, which I'm sure you know, a hunter shoots a brant that is banded, you know, they are going to majority at for the science, 75% are going to call it in. Is there a way to be able to see, are they shooting them there in Alaska? Specifically maybe targeting more often or is it more in Baja? Those are basically the two places that they are really hunted heavily. Am I mistaken there?

Mark Lindberg: No, that is correct. We do have some information for reporting that helps us understand where that targeting might be occurring. Again, some percentage of hunters, 25 or more, aren't reporting their bands. We are a little bit in dark about that. Some hunters have the thought that, boy, if I don't report a targeted band, I don't influence the data and that's not true. What happens is we just have less information and so we are less certain about how much band targeting may or may not be going on. I know some people have proposed that as a strategy. I discourage it. If you target bands, not illegal. I do not suggest you do it, but please report your band. We need to have that information.

Mike Brasher: Yeah, Mark you hit exactly where my mind was going. I could imagine some listeners saying, "Well, I'm just going to, I just won't report band that way I am not going to artificially lower that survival rate." There's two parts of any estimate that we use in survival and that is the accuracy of the estimate and that is the precision of the estimate. The precision comes from those reports and the more reports we have, the greater the precision, the more certain we are in that estimate and the greater the confidence that we can have that that estimate is a true reflection of what is going on in the population. When we have that information, when we have confidence in it, we can make better decisions. Am I also seeing that correctly?

Mark Lindberg: Yeah, very much so. You know, the analogy I like to use is the appeal to hunters is to go out, site in your rifle for the hunting season and you could shoot one ground, maybe three or you can shoot 20. If you shoot 20 you are going to be a lot more confident about the accuracy of that rifle than you would be if you shot fewer than that. It is the exact same way. We are much more confident about what we know about brant survival, particularly if we have a lot of reports versus very few. It is important to have the most precise information we can to make the best decision.

Mike Brasher: Every wildlife student has been taught the difference between accuracy and precision using that analogy, and I was actually sketching this out in advance of our discussion here and as I think about that, if I'm siting in my rifle, I would rather have an inaccurate rifle, but it be highly precise than I would rather have an accurate rifle and it be imprecise because if it is imprecise, I am less certain where that thing is going to impact in a rescue is the trigger. Is that kind of the way you teach it as well, Mark?

Mark Lindberg: Yeah, very much so. That is funny you bring it up. I put that on the board with various scenarios of how your rifle's shooting accurate or biased and precise and so forth and I asked the students, which rifle would you most like to have to take with you hunting? It is as you said, well, the one you want is the one that is not biased and precise, but the second would be a little bit off bulls-eye biased, but very precise cause you least know how it shooting then. So yes, very much so.

Chris Jennings: No, I appreciate you guys sitting here talking about the mathematics, the science aspect of it. I am over here sitting here thinking about how we could scan Instagram to figure out who shooting the Black brant and the Pacific flyway cause you know, those guys are not, you know. Even though they are posting it on Instagram either way, cause they are so proud of their brant bands. We could figure out a way to eliminate that 25% that is not being reported in some way, shape or form. I guess that is how my mind works a little bit over here. I am sure that is a terrible idea from a science perspective, but that, for some reason, that is what popped into my head.

Mike Brasher: I'll let you take the lead on that.

Chris Jennings: I'll take the lead on, take a lead on to the Instagram data. I'll do that. I'll handle that.

Mark Lindberg: I don't want to single anybody out and, you know, anybody that shoots a banded bird should be proud of it and should seek out the information about that bird. I would think you would want to know where it was banded and how long it's lived and so forth. I don't want anybody to come away from this discussion thinking, geez, I shouldn't even shoot banded birds. That is not the case at all. Just recognize that if you do target them, the information becomes unreliable.

Chris Jennings: Yeah, no, and I think that is one thing that I wanted to get across, as well, is that, you know, we are not telling people to not shoot banded birds. In the last episode we were just discussing how important it is for hunters to play that role of Citizen Science and provide that information for the science teams to be able to have and make decisions from. I think, you that is a very important thing to point out is we are certainly not discouraging people. It's just you don't want to specifically target these birds cause then that can skew the data.

Mark Lindberg: Definitely. Yeah. I feel to hunters to, well, police their ranks, if you will. When I was growing up in Pennsylvania, that Pennsylvania Game Commission had a program called Sport. Sportsman Policing our ranks together. I am not encouraging anybody to be aggressive towards someone who might be targeting, but spread the word. Let them know that hey, that might not be in the best interest of, revival information. We need to be good Citizens Scientists. I hope people will spread the word and let people know what the consequences that might be.

Chris Jennings: Yeah, and if any aspect of the population has been good about kind of policing their own resource over the decades, it's definitely been waterfowl. I mean that is a good point to make as well.

Mike Brasher: We, on this, on this podcast here work as waterfowl biologists work in waterfowl conservation field, but when we hunt, when we go out as hunter, we are all the same. We are just like everybody else. We are out there and we have a responsibility to collect data, quite frankly. The data that we have an opportunity to collect, we have a responsibility to do so as reliably as possible. We have talked earlier about the importance of that information. It is only going to increase in the face of shrinking budgets. We just encourage everyone to do their part in helping us manage the resource responsibly with good information. Chris, any final words from you?

Chris Jennings: You know, I just want to add, and Mark has touched on this and yourself, is that we are not trying to discourage anyone from shooting a band. If you are hunting this December or even now in northern states, you are hunting and a Mallard comes in, cupped up, and you notice that there is a band on that bird. I mean, hey, pull the trigger. That is part of the aspect and it is also extremely important for hunters to know that waterfowl managers, waterfowl scientists, they do not get that data unless you do pull the trigger and you do harvest that band. Of course, you have to report it, which is extremely important. I just want people to know that we are not discouraging people from shooting bands. We are discouraging people from really targeting flocks and targeting specific birds that are banded rather than, just a normal casual hunting scenario.

Mike Brasher: How much more exciting is that casual hunting experience when you actually get that band then when you are doing something sort of deceitful, if you will?

Chris Jennings: Absolutely, yeah.

Mike Brasher: That are artificial. Just not right. Well Mark, we also want to give you an opportunity for a few final words and life lessons for us. Thank you again for joining us. Any final words for the show?

Mark Lindberg: I just want people to know that I get it. Early in my hunting career and in my professional career, I targeted bands. I will freely admit it. I remember 1988, a neck collared Canada Goose decoying in and me noticing the tag and saying, boy, I want that one. I did not understand the consequences of it then and I do now and I hope hunters recognize the potential consequences as well. We need your help. This is going to only happen if you talk to your friends, your hunting partners and let them know, hey, that might not be such a good idea. I hope you will continue to do that and we will get more reliable information. We need hunters. We need hunter information and we need it to be reliable. Hope that continues in the future.

Mike Brasher: Thanks so much for joining us, Mark.

Mark Lindberg: Sure.

Chris Jennings: Report your band.

Mike Brasher: On behalf of my cohost, Chris Jennings, I want to thank our special guest, Dr. Mark Lindberg for joining us again and sharing his time and his expertise. As always, we thank our fabulous producer, Clay Baird. He makes us all sound wonderful and thanks to each of you, the listeners, most important part of this endeavor. Thanks for your time and your passion and your commitment to waterfowl and wetlands conservation.

Clay Baird: Thank you for listening to this episode of the DV podcast. Be sure to rate, review and subscribe to the show and visit www.duck.org/dupodcast for resources based on today's topics, as well as access to more episodes. Opinions expressed by guests do not necessarily reflect those of ducks unlimited. Until next time, stay tuned to the ducks.