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Delta Waterfowl Supports Effort To Save Steller's Eiders

BISMARCK, ND - Delta Waterfowl has donated funding to help with the ongoing predator-management effort aimed at reversing the decline of the threatened Alaska-breeding population of Steller's eiders.

The funding will help the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), an agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) continue arctic fox removal on the birds' primary U.S. breeding area around Barrow, Alaska.

The goal is to recover the Steller's eider population so that it no longer needs Endangered Species Act (ESA) protection. It was listed as threatened by the USFWS in 1997.

"While Delta is happy to step up with a small contribution to help this important effort, the people doing the really important work are those in the APHIS and the USFWS," says Delta Senior Vice President John Devney.

A colorful sea duck that spends most of the year in shallow, near-shore marine waters, the Steller's eider is the smallest (it averages 18 inches in length and weighs roughly two pounds) and least abundant of the four eider species found in Alaska.

"It's a very mysterious bird," says Karen Laing, USFWS Eider Recovery Coordinator in Anchorage, adding that very little about it is well understood.

Once considered "locally common" in coastal areas in western and northern Alaska, the U.S. Steller's eider population, estimated today in the hundreds, breeds primarily near Barrow, a small whaling village on Alaska's northernmost tip.

In the spring of 2005 and 2006, and as part of the USFWS-led Steller's Eider Recovery Plan, APHIS officials controlled artic fox throughout a 60-square-mile area of the birds' tundra breeding grounds. Arctic fox are found in high densities around Barrow, where human settlements provide the opportunistic predators with multiple food sources.

"The tundra doesn't grow much more than two inches, so there is very little cover from them (Steller's eiders) to hide from predators," says Corey Rossi, assistant state director for the USDA's Wildlife Services Program. "What we're trying to do is suppress fox numbers during the breeding season so they can make it off the nest."

While the relationship between arctic fox control and Steller's eider reproductive success requires additional scientific research, Service officials say, Steller's eider nesting and fledging success increased the last two years when arctic fox were controlled.

From 1991 to 2004, Steller's eider nesting success averaged 16 percent. In 2005 and 2006, when arctic fox were controlled, nest success increased to 22 and 74 percent, respectively.

For three years in the 1990s (1995, 1996, 1999) when nesting was monitored, fledging success (the proportion of nests that fledge at least one duckling) was 7 percent. In 2005 and 2006, fledging success was 67 and 57 percent, respectively.

"One problem with the Steller's eider is that we don't know for sure why the population has declined over the years," says Laing. "With most threatened populations often found in the lower 48 states, for example, it is very clear there was habitat loss, or a contaminate, or something else that very clearly caused the decline. With the Steller's eider, we don't know for sure, but we can look to see what appears to be threatening the population now and focus on that."

One such focus is controlling arctic fox numbers.

"The current evaluation has very clearly demonstrated the effectiveness of predator management to benefit a waterfowl species that is fairing poorly," says Devney. "It has been well understood in the waterfowl management community that sea duck populations are in decline, and predator management is one way to potentially offset the decline of this breeding population."

Controlling predators to improve the breeding population of an at-risk waterfowl species isn't unprecedented in Alaska. A case in point: the amazing recovery of Aleutian Canada goose, now called the Aleutian cackling goose, which went on the endangered list in 1967.

The birds' problems with predators began decades earlier when fur farmers and trappers released two fox species (arctic and red) on roughly 190 islands within the goose's breeding range in the Aleutian Islands.

Not surprisingly, the goose population began to plummet, and no geese were observed from 1938 until the early 1960s when USFWS biologists discovered a small population on a remote island in the Aleutian chain.

In 1975, with the spring goose population estimated at 790 birds, a formal recovery program was implemented, including fox removal from the birds' breeding grounds. Geese were also relocated to fox-free islands. In 1984, successful breeding began on one restored island. By 1999, the Aleutian Canada goose population exceeded 30,000, more than four times the original recovery goal; in 2001, the bird was removed from federal protection.

"It's an amazing story," says Rossi of APHIS, who also worked on the project. "We went from federal protection to a hunting season."

While long-term predator management and other research on the Steller's eider population needs to be conducted, Laing says, USFWS operational budgets are thin, and research beyond 2007 is up in the air.

"I'm writing grant proposals and looking for partners," she says. "This is expensive research, but it is important research, and we hope to continue it."

Editors: For more information, contact John Devney at 888-987-3695.