Aleutian Goose Festival, Spring Birding Festivals, Pacific Northwest Birding, Crescent City, California, Del Norte County
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~ Rescued From the Brink ~
Aleutian Goose Festival, Spring Birding Festivals, Pacific Northwest Birding, Crescent City, California, Del Norte County
 
The Comeback Story of the Aleutian Canada Goose
The Aleutian Canada Goose, once thought to be extinct, has come back to more than 60,000+ birds. Their recovery story is one of the rare success stories under the protection of the federal Endangered Species Act, as there are only about one dozen species that have ever recovered successfully enough to be taken off the list. When de-listed in the spring of 2001, the geese joined just a handful of "fully recovered" species such as the gray whale and peregrine falcon.

A true talisman of the Pacific Rim, these geese are the only subspecies of Canada goose whose range once included both North America and Asia. They became endangered because in the 1800's Russian fur trappers "seeded" foxes throughout the Aleutian Islands for their trade. The foxes happily settled in, and began to eat up all the geese, as well as sea birds and other wildlife. While the geese have recovered in most of Alaska's Aleutian Island chain, Japanese, Russian and U.S. scientists are now teaming up to assist the geese in returning to their original breeding grounds in the string of islands connecting the former Soviet Union and Japan, including the Kuril and Commander Islands.

The "Aleutian geese" were recognized as an endangered species in 1967, when they numbered fewer than 500 and were almost lost. Indeed, they were so few that no one even saw them for nearly 25 years. Scientists thought they were extinct. They were "rediscovered" by an intrepid lone biologist and researcher called Bob "Sea Otter" Jones, who rowed out in a wooden dory to the rocky, wave-tossed remote island in the western Aleutians where he suspected -- and found-- a small remnant population hidden away. As U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's LaVerne Smith remarks, "I don't think there's any other recovery story that rivals this one." This is a dramatic story involving remote islands, high seas, gale force winds, and recovery team staff maneuvering in tiny wooden boats.

A few years ago our small town, Crescent City, in rural northwestern California established an annual festival to showcase the spring staging spectacle of these remarkable little geese. More than 37,000 geese arrive during March of 2002 to rest and feed in Del Norte County, and visitors could witness virtually the world's entire population of this species concentrated within a few miles. Today, visitors come to experience a dawn spectacle, viewed from coastal headlands, as tens of thousands of geese rise from their offshore island's rest and fill the sky overhead with voice and wing. The sight of so many birds darkening the sky is an experience that has almost been lost from the American landscape; yet in Del Norte County this wildlife spectacle is still growing.

The Aleutian geese are part of the local Tolowa Indian Creation Story, which Tolowa leader Loren Bommelyn has paraphrased as: "Every spring of the year the sound of the geese echoes through the atmosphere. This is a forecast of spring and what life will be in spring, and each year you will witness this returning." The Tolowa word for these geese is "Haa~ -chu," which is one of the few Tolowa words which is onomatopoeic (most words are descriptive). Haa~ is the sound of the high pitched honking of the geese, and -chu means "a lot or big," implying perhaps that a long time ago there were great numbers of these geese.

During their spring staging, the geese feed in local pastures during the day, fattening up for their 2,000 mile nonstop journey over the ocean to their remote breeding islands in the Aleutian chain. Once they leave Del Norte County, they fly directly over the Pacific Ocean during their entire journey. This flight takes them three days nonstop, and during it they lose a third of their body weight. When they arrive, they need to be healthy and fat enough to breed and successfully raise their families.

Another unique twist of the recovery story is the plight of the Del Norte County ranchers and farmers on whose lands the geese feed as they build up their fat reserves for their arduous ocean crossing. Although public lands are available, the geese have learned to prefer the lush green pastures fertilized by ranchers for their livestock, and they graze these fields just as the most tender, juicy early spring grass is emerging. Local ranchers estimate 35 geese will eat as much grass as one cow eats in a day. As goose numbers have recovered and the population expands, this has created a burden for regional family farmers and ranchers. A recently formed Aleutian goose working group composed of state and federal land managers, private ranchers, and research biologists is working together to address the growing problem and find workable solutions.

 
The recovery saga of the geese isn't finished yet.
 
Aleutian Goose Festival, Spring Birding Festivals, Pacific Northwest Birding, Crescent City, California, Del Norte County
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