OLYMPIA – Northwest Washington's declining wintering brant geese populations – including a potentially separate genetic stock that may be one of the rarest geese in the world – sent Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) biologists to the Canadian Arctic this summer on a high-tech research project.
Biologists are seeking clues as to why Pacific black brant numbers have dropped, and also hope to determine the genetic uniqueness of Western High Arctic brant, which winter in the Skagit and Fraser river estuaries.
"Washington state hosts the highest concentration of these birds anywhere in the world, and they are a priority species for the department," WDFW Waterfowl Section Manager Don Kraege said.
Kraege, along with WDFW Biologist Mike Davison traveled this summer with Canadian Wildlife Service biologists and Washington Brant Foundation staff to the brant's nesting grounds on Melville Island, in the extreme Canadian north.
Historically, Pacific brant wintering in Washington state numbered approximately 25,000, but Kraege estimated the 2001 wintering population at 13,000 to 14,000 birds. Historic bird counts of the Western High Arctic birds averaged about 12,000 birds; recent annual surveys have put the estimate at 8,000 to 9,000 birds.
During their stay above the Arctic Circle, the team took genetic samples of western High Arctic birds to help further determine the bird's genetic uniqueness, and attached a variety of identification devices to birds, including satellite-linked transmitters that provide realtime locations for the birds. Hunters who take a tagged bird are urged to immediately report their harvest.
Biologists tagged 120 geese during their stay on Melville Island. Ten birds were fitted with the high-tech satellite transmitters, while 42 birds had the more standard radio-transmitting devices attached to them. All birds were also fitted with leg bands.
Migrating geese fitted with satellite transmitters can be tracked via Washington Brant Foundation's website, http://www.washingtonbrant.org on the Internet.
"Satellite transmitters give us a detailed look at the birds' migration paths and the timing of their migration, plus habitat use and harvest data along the way," Kraege said. "The VHF radio tags allow us to track local movements once the birds arrive."
Local tracking of the birds will give biologists information about habitat use, nighttime roosting sites, and any interchanges that might be occurring between the Fraser estuary and Skagit estuary stocks.
There is limited hunting for brant geese in northwestern Washington and on the southwestern Washington coast. In Skagit County, the January portion of the hunt is allowed only if population surveys conducted after the November season reveal more than 6,000 brant.
While the brant arriving in northwestern Washington in October and November are mainly the more common black brant, the birds coming into the area later in December and into January are virtually all from the western High Arctic population.
"It is important for our research effort to collect as many of these transmitters and bands as possible – and it is of equal importance that we see the whole bird with the device still attached," Davison said.
"Taking a bird with a transmitter is perfectly legal, but it is essential to the research project that we inspect the bird before the device is removed," he said, adding that biologists will go immediately to a hunter's location to record the data. Birds will be returned to hunters after the data and equipment have been collected.
Brant hunters who have taken a transmitter-packing bird should bring the bird immediately to the Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve near Bayview, (360) 428-1558. Hunters can leave the bird at the reserve, and it will be returned to the hunter within 48 hours.
Alternately, hunters can contact Davison at (360) 708-6892, Kraege at (360) 791-1933, or Maynard Axelson with the Washington Brant Foundation, (360) 202-0415, who can arrange to have someone meet the hunter and examine the bird.
Davison said the research mission to the Canadian interior was made possible through the support of several corporations, including Moonstone Mountain Equipment, Eagle Creek and Dana Design.
"These corporate sponsors provided everything from tents, gear carriers, sleeping bags and winter clothing," Davison said. "It's literally the top of the world, and it's brutal up there. It's a tough place to live."
In addition to WDFW, other contributors to the project include the Canadian Wildlife Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey, Polar Continental Shelf Project, Arctic Goose Joint Venture and the Samish Island Brant Club.