After 30 years of waiting and conserving, residents of the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta will be able to hunt emperor geese again next month. Wildlife managers and hunters are standing by for the federal government to release the official notice. Then residents will continue a tradition that’s skipped a generation.
“Most of the communities out in the villages, they are primarily subsistence lifestyle, and all the species our parents once knew and consumed when they were growing from a young age, we are about to start tasting,” Roland White of Tuntutuliak said.
White serves as the Chairman of the Association of Village Council Presidents’ Waterfowl Conservation Committee, and the last time he tasted emperor goose, he was about 10 years old and his father had brought home game from the tundra.
“Like any other birds or mammals or fish, they sustain our livelihood and our entity as Alaska Natives,” White said.
Soon, White will be able to bring home the birds like his father did before him, passing the tradition down to the generation that missed it.
The AVCP Waterfowl Conservation Committee met with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists on Monday to hear an update on the expected hunt.
Eric Taylor with USFWS told the group that the regulation booklets were already at the printer, ready for when the official notice gets published in the Federal Register. It’s expected any day.
“There are many people that are working frantically to get it through the review stages, and get the signatures that are necessary, and get it published,” Taylor said.
For 30 years, Alaska residents abstained from hunting emperor geese after the population dropped to dangerously low levels in the 1980s. After decades of allowing the bird population to rise, tribes began asking for a hunt. Together, tribal groups, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game created a co-management plan. Now, the subsistence hunt is expected to open April 2 with no limit on bag or possession. A restricted winter hunt should follow.
The emperor goose population is currently around about 170,000, which is just above the threshold to sustain a hunt. Managers like Eric Taylor are encouraging conservative hunting. He said that, just as a generation of humans may have never tasted emperor geese, the geese have forgotten what it was like to be hunted.
“They see folks in a blind with these things that look like long sticks that are actually shotguns. They’re not going to know that people are actually harvesting birds,” Taylor said. “They’re going to be naive, if such a term can be said for a bird.”
Emperor geese have other traits that make them vulnerable to over-harvesting. When one gets shot, the flock doesn’t fly away but instead circles back. The birds lay eggs later in life and don’t lay every year, and the rates for the birds living past their first year is lower than other geese species.
Managers have suggestions for how to prevent overharvest and keep the population growing. One is to limit how many birds a hunter takes and to only take juvenile birds with dark heads as opposed to adult birds with white heads that could be breeding. They also recommend that hunters target one bird at a time instead of spraying the flock and only take one or two eggs from a nest.
The Kodiak Alaska Migratory Bird Co-Management Council is recommending its members harvest only one bird, or what they need, during the subsistence season. The Association of Village Council Presidents Waterfowl Conservation Committee has not recommended a restriction for its members.