After a false start a year and a half ago, managers are ready now to allow not one, but two hunts per year for the king of all waterfowl – the emperor goose. Because of a crash in its population 31 years ago, sport hunting for the bird was suspended, with a ban on subsistence hunting put in place the next year, 1987.
The Emperor Goose is a striking bird, with distinctive gray-barred plumage and a pure white head and back of the neck. The bird is migratory, but mostly stays in Alaska, with some venturing as far as Siberia in the summer to nest. Most nest between Bristol Bay and Nome, with the majority making their summer home in the vast Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.
Kodiak Island is one of the bird’s main wintering grounds, along with the Aleutian Islands.
The Alaska Migratory Bird Co-Management Council, which, with its partners from the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and Alaska Native stakeholders has kept an eye on the population numbers for years, and developed the three-year trial period to determine how the Emperor geese respond to new hunting pressure.
“They’re apparently pretty tasty,” said Patty Schwalenberg, the executive director of the AMBCC. “I mean we’ve been having elders (say), ‘I haven’t had a bird in 30 years, I’d really like to taste another one before I die.’”
Putting off the elders for so long was difficult, Schwalenberg said, but added that it was necessary to balance their subsistence needs with care for the population. Currently, they’re estimated to number about 150,000.
She said that in about 2012, the council started getting increased requests to enact a hunt. Schwalenberg said residents maintained there must be more Emperor geese than were being counted.
“Well that was always what the community members were saying. ‘There’s more birds in that area. Do you go here? Do you go there? Where do you do your aerial surveys? We, people on the ground, think there are more birds than you are counting,’” she said.
It was that pressure, Schwalenberg said, that prompted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to, as she put it, “look at their numbers more seriously.”
Crystal Leonetti is with Fish and Wildlife. She says there will be two different types of hunts this, and during the next two years.
“For the spring-summer hunt, because it’s a customary and traditional hunt, for eligible persons living in the eligible subsistence areas in Alaska, they can hunt Emperor geese without a license,” Leonetti said. “But for the fall-winter hunt, that requires a hunting license from the State of Alaska.”
Jason Shamber, a biologist with the state’s Division of Wildlife Conservation explained.
“There will be a season in Kodiak, as well as Western Alaska, and the Alaska Peninsula and through the Aleutian Chain,” he said. “Essentially throughout the range of Emperor geese will be open for both a spring-summer subsistence harvest and a fall-winter harvest as well.”
Schwalenberg pointed out that this harvest plan was created by the migratory bird council, and with extensive input from rural and Native subsistence users.
“So it gets the Native people more involved in the science of the management, and I think provides more ownership in the management activities. So normally the Pacific Flyway Council does the management plan for each of the species, but because the Emperor goose only occurs in Alaska and then a little bit of in Russia, we did our own management plan for this bird,” Schwalenberg said. “Which is like huge – at least for me.”
The growth rate for Emperor geese is about 2-percent per year, which is not large. Since it is just a three-year experiment, if the Emperor’s new harvest doesn’t fit well, it will likely not continue.