Steller's eider may be reintroduced
There are a few different theories floating around about why the number of Steller's eiders, a sea duck that breeds near the coasts of sub-Arctic and Arctic Alaska, and Russia, has taken a nosedive in the state over the past several decades.
The low numbers prompted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to propose reintroduction of the species to the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta with captive-bred birds, and the service is now seeking input from the public on the matter.
The birds would be repopulated to the YK-Delta, a former popular nesting ground, and if all goes according to plan, the process could begin as early as 2015.
But, without first determining exactly why the population has dwindled, using resources and time to reintroduce the bird is risky, said Robert Suydam, a wildlife biologist with the Department of Wildlife Management in Barrow.
In 1997, Fish and Wildlife listed the Alaska breeding population of the Steller's eider as threatened. In the past decade, just three nests have been found in the Delta.
The Alaska breeding population of Steller's eiders now nests primarily only on the Arctic Coastal Plain around Barrow, but even these numbers are alarmingly low, according to the Alaska SeaLife Center.
"If we don't know what's going on with Steller's eiders, either on land where they're nesting or at sea where they spend most of their lives, then investing lots of money and lots of time and lots of effort into reintroducing them may not be the wisest use of funds," said Suydam, who was a member of the Eider Recovery Team for many years.
There are ideas on why the numbers slumped, but data collected on the North Slope might not explain the decline on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, where the proposed reintroduction would take place.
On the North Slope, data collected reveals that low numbers of lemmings or other rodents translates to hungrier predators like owl and fox who might then turn to the Steller's eider nesting grounds for a meal of eider eggs or chicks. On the YK-Delta, however, the popular hypothesis is that spent lead pellets, used for years by hunters in the area, were ingested by female eiders killing them off over time, explained Brian McCaffrey, a biologist with the USFWS in Bethel.
A study done in the '90s in the areas where eiders nested showed lead in blood samples from spectacled eiders as well as pellets in the birds' gizzards. The Steller's eider, the smallest of the four eider species, were all but gone by then from the YK-Delta, but spectacled and Steller's eiders nested in the same area.
While the number of spectacled eiders also dropped significantly — from 100,000 to 5,000 birds — the number of Steller's eiders was much lower to begin with, which is why the drop is more dramatic.
So what's to say that the reintroduced population of Steller's eiders won't meet the same fate?
For starters, lead pellets are banned and any that are left on the landscape are getting less and less accessible to the birds as they sink into the tundra, said McCaffrey. And that trend will continue.
"We're confident they won't be as exposed," he said, adding that there is another similar study in the works for this summer to test the resident spectacled eiders.
The plan to reintroduce the Steller's eider to Alaska isn't a new one. It's been in the works for about a decade, Suydam added.
And while repopulating a threatened species hasn't been done on the North Slope, Suydam cited the recovery of Canada geese on the Aleutian Islands from around 1970 through 1990. The Canada goose population had been nearly wiped out due to predation on the remote islands but as of around 2000, the birds had fully recovered and were delisted from the Endangered Species list.
"I'm not sure of the chances of success for this reintroduction plan," Suydam added. "It's going to be a tough decision because it will take many, many years and lots of investment — financial and intellectual and time — to make the project successful."
One facet of the proposed project that would help ensure success is the state-of-the-art systems in place at the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward where the birds are bred.
The captive birds are monitored and strict protocols are in place to limit contact with the birds and ensure that they are not exposed to any possible disease. The blood of the captive eiders is also tested regularly for parasites, said McCaffrey. Besides disease, another risk of releasing captive birds into the wild is the chance that the released eiders could possess the wrong genetic makeup.
"We want to make sure that only birds of Alaska lineage are put back out there," he said.
The recovery team is confident that the birds that would be released have the correct ancestry and are at low risk for disease, he added.
"No one's ever done a better job of this."
Currently, the process is in the "scoping" phase, said USFWS spokesperson Andrea Medeiros. After the comment period, an environmental assessment or impact study would be the next move on the agenda, should the project progress.
Public comment is an important step in this process, both biologists agreed.
In Bethel, written comments or input garnered at public meetings could help officials understand more about the bird and its history in the area.
Already, the service has talked to several Elders in the region who remember an abundance of Steller's eiders there when they were growing up, said McCaffrey.
Minimizing the impacts to subsistence hunting grounds is a priority, he added, and historical and cultural information from local hunters could impact where the proposed release sites would be.
"We want to involve the whole community in this project to promote broader conservation initiatives," he said.
The upcoming meeting and public comment period "provides an opportunity to share ideas and enhance water foul conservation out on the Delta."
While the proposed recovery plan is transitioning from planning to implementation, according to the service, the earliest date for releasing any birds would be 2015, but even that would be a small-scale part of the project. The first big goal is to bring the breeding population up to 50, to know that they're on the right track, while full recovery will take several years after that, McCaffrey said.
"We'll be learning and getting better as we go," he said.
The public comment period began Monday while the deadline to submit ideas on the proposed action is April 15. Later in 2014, the Service will provide an opportunity for additional public input on the draft environmental assessment, which will lay out the issues, alternatives, analysis of impacts, and the preferred alternative.
To find out how to submit your comments, go to http://1.usa.gov/1bmQkZ2.