Western High Arctic brant (Branta bernicla)

Category: Birds
Common names: Gray-bellied Goose
Ecosystems: Marine shorelines
Vulnerability to climate change (More details)


If you see this species, please share your observation using the WDFW wildlife reporting form. Providing detailed information such as a photo and exact coordinates will improve the confidence and value of this observation to WDFW species conservation and management.

Western High Arctic brant is one of two stocks of brant that occur in Washington during winter. Their population has experienced a long-term decline in numbers. Factors affecting population status and distribution are currently unknown. Potential disturbance factors include increased water-based recreation, commercial and residential development, shellfish harvest, and fishing.

Western High Arctic brant is managed as a migratory game bird under state and federal migratory waterfowl regulations cooperatively through the Pacific Flyway Council

Learn more about brant geese in Washington in this January 2024 WDFW blog post.

Description and Range

Physical description

These short-legged sea geese are 24 to 25 inches in length and weigh 3 ¼ to 3 ¾ pounds. Their head and neck is black with a white neck patch; their back and wings are brown, and their flanks are white. The western High Arctic brant exhibits breast color plumage characteristics closer to the pale gray of brant on the Atlantic coast, in contrast to typical black brant with dark breast plumage in the Pacific Flyway.

For more information on how to identify brant species, check out the Artic Goose Joint Venture "Meet the Geese."Also check out the Resources section.

Ecology and life history

The western High Arctic brant is one of two stocks of brant that occur in Washington during winter, and it is not currently recognized as a distinct subspecies separate from black brant. They breed in Canada on the Parry Islands, located in Northwest Territories and Nunavut. In their high latitude nesting area, extreme weather conditions during summer can lead to total breeding failures in some years.

On breeding areas in the Parry Islands, brant nest as widely dispersed solitary pairs, often well away from water. Some nesting and much available feeding habitat is susceptible to inundation by storm tides and is susceptible to spills by petroleum exploration and development.

Brant utilizing north Puget Sound use coastal estuaries with sufficient quantities of eelgrass and sea lettuce, as well as adequate haul-out and grit access sites. Numbers of brant utilizing migration and wintering habitats in Washington have been related to trends in the size of eelgrass beds that have been reduced in some areas.

Several major oil refineries in north Puget Sound are located in key wintering areas, including Padilla Bay.

Geographic range

Status and trends of this brant are less clear than those for black brant. In 1993, there were 500 nesting birds on Prince Patrick Island and 1,500 on Melville Island. Only two percent of the area of Mellville, Prince Patrick, and Eglinton Islands, and associated smaller islands in the Parry group are suitable for nesting, and the scarcity of vegetation likely limits abundance and distribution. Following the breeding season, these brant migrate to the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge area in Alaska and stage for up to six weeks in the fall. 

Marking information indicates the north Puget Sound area is the major wintering area for this stock, although brant populations wintering in Alaska have been growing recently and may contain Brant from this same population. The percentage of these brant in north Puget Sound during winter averaged 48 percent (4,248) in 2007 to 2013.

For a range-wide map of brant distribution and conservation status and other information about brant, check out NatureServe Explorer and the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List.

Climate vulnerability

Sensitivity to climate change


Brant geese likely exhibit moderate sensitivity to climate due to their habitat and foraging requirements. In particular, food abundance at wintering areas appears to have a direct effect on population reproduction. Key foraging areas such as eelgrass beds may decrease or increase due to changes in temperature or salinity, or sea level rise. Extreme events (e.g., severe winter weather) that reduce food abundance and availability could also affect this species (e.g., mortality).

Confidence: Moderate

Exposure to climate change


  • Sea level rise
  • Increased ocean temperatures
  • Increased storminess
  • Changes in salinity
Confidence: Moderate


Rules and seasons

For current rules about hunting western high Arctic brant in the state, be sure to check the Washington Game Bird and Small Game hunting regulations.


This species is identified as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN) under the State Wildlife Action Plan (SWAP). SGCN-classified species include both those with and without legal protection status under the Federal or State Endangered Species programs, as well as game species with low populations. The WDFW SWAP is part of a nationwide effort by all 50 states and five U.S. territories to develop conservation action plans for fish, wildlife and their natural habitats—identifying opportunities for species' recovery before they are imperiled and more limited.
This species is identified as a Priority Species under WDFW's Priority Habitat and Species Program. Priority species require protective measures for their survival due to their population status, sensitivity to habitat alteration, and/or recreational, commercial, or tribal importance. The PHS program is the agency's main means of sharing fish and wildlife information with local governments, landowners, and others who use it to protect priority habitats for land use planning.

Western High Arctic brant are game species, managed under state and federal migratory waterfowl regulations cooperatively through the Pacific Flyway Council. The Pacific Flyway Council is an administrative body that forges cooperation among public wildlife agencies for the purpose of protecting and conserving migratory birds in western North America. The Council is composed of the director or an appointee from the public wildlife agency in each state and province in the western United States, Canada, and Mexico. 

WDFW has various game management plans to track populations and harvest of games species around the state, including waterfowl. These plans have information about harvest statistics from recent years, and the department's long-term vision and goals for a variety of species.

In early 2003, WDFW formed the Washington Waterfowl Advisory Group (WAG) to increase citizen involvement in the conservation and management of Washington’s waterfowl resources. This group has members from a broad representation of waterfowl hunters throughout the state. To learn about the WAG, contact the WDFW Waterfowl Section at (360) 902-2515 or visit the WAG webpage

The western High Arctic brant (“grey-bellies”) is one of the smallest Arctic goose breeding populations in the world and winters only in a few areas making them susceptible to overharvest. Thus, harvest opportunity of brant in Washington is regulated through season length reductions or season closures to prevent over harvest.

Conservation Threats and Actions Needed

  • Resource information collection needs
    • Threat: Lack of information on status and distribution.
    • Action Needed: Conduct annual winter inventory.
    • Threat: Lack of information on population demography.
    • Action Needed: Conduct annual recruitment and stock assessments.
  • Fish and wildlife habitat loss or degradation
    • Threat: Puget Sound development impacts on marine environment.
    • Action Needed: Acquire or facilitate protection of critical shoreline use areas.
    • Threat: Disturbance and direct habitat impacts at important use areas on Padilla, Samish, and Fidalgo Bays.
    • Action Needed: Acquire and enhance critical shoreline use areas.

See the Climate vulnerability section for information about the threats posed by climate change to brant.

Our Conservation Efforts

Midwinter Aerial Seabird Surveys

WDFW conducts survey flights over a period of several days from November through February annually to monitor the abundance, trends, and distribution of sea ducks and other marine birds in the Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca (U.S. portion of the Salish Sea). Learn more about this research on the project's page.