The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife today canceled a planned five-day brant hunting season, after counts of the birds in Skagit County indicated numbers below the level needed for the hunt to proceed.
The hunt had been scheduled to open Jan. 13, if at least 6,000 brant were present. However, a WDFW aerial survey of the birds earlier this week over Padilla, Samish, and Fidalgo bays indicated only 4,881 were present.
The last time the brant population index was this low in Skagit County was in 1983, prompting a four-year hunt closure, noted Don Kraege, WDFW waterfowl manager.
Since 1996, WDFW waterfowl hunting regulations have specified that at least 6,000 brant must be present for brant hunting to take place in Skagit County. The closure threshold is intended to conserve the population of Western High Arctic brant ("gray-bellied brant") which winter in the area. Conservation of Western High Arctic brant was recommended by an independent scientific review panel formed in 1999 to evaluate brant management in Washington.
Causes of the Skagit brant population decline are unknown, but may be the result of poor production on the birds' western Canadian breeding grounds, combined with possible changes in areas of the flyway the brant frequent, Kraege said. Only 581 brant were taken in last January's Skagit hunt.
WDFW and the Canadian Wildlife Service have proposed a research project to learn more about the area's gray-bellied brant, but funding has not been secured.
"The strength of the Skagit winter brant population, and any hopes of future hunting seasons, depend on careful management of the population now," said Lora Leschner, WDFW's North Puget Sound regional wildlife manager.
Meanwhile, a five-day brant season in Pacific County will open as scheduled Jan. 13. Season information is listed in the WDFW 2000-2001 Migratory Waterfowl and Upland Game Seasons pamphlet. Because of the closure in Skagit County, only those hunting in Pacific County will be required to return harvest reports.
Hunters registered for brant hunts in both Skagit and Pacific counties will automatically be mailed a new hunting authorization and harvest report prior to the next scheduled season.