Global Team Of Scientists Track Delta Species As Arctic Warms

Sep 12, 2017

The Arctic Council Working Group on Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna met in Bethel last week to discuss strategies for measuring the impact of climate change on circumpolar wildlife.


Emperor goose in Gibson Cove

KYUK: The Arctic Council Working Group on Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna, or CAFF, wrapped up their second, and final, day of meetings at the Bethel Cultural Center last week. Representatives from six indigenous groups and eight Arctic countries are measuring the impact of climate change on circumpolar wildlife.

One of their strategies is to track plants, birds, and animals that are vital to the health of Arctic ecosystems and vulnerable to climate change; several of those species can be found right here in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

"For a goose biologist, visiting the YK Delta is the must thing to do," said Evgeny Syroechkovskiy.

Syroechkovskiy is a scientist from Moscow who’s studied geese for over 20 years. He’s worked with the Russian Goose, Swan, and Duck study group for over a decade, and he was particularly excited that CAFF’s meeting was being held in the Delta this year.

"It’s probably the area of one of the highest concentrations of geese breeding anywhere in the planet," he said.

Syroechkovskiy is chairing the Arctic Management Bird Initiative, a CAFF program that’s conducting a global survey of geese populations around the world, and he said that several species of geese that migrate and nest in the Delta are nearing extinction in other countries.

"The decline in geese in Siberia and the Far East is more than 80 percent," said Syroechkovskiy. "There’s hardly anything left."

The snow geese that migrate to the Delta in autumn are already extinct in Asia. "A hundred years ago, in Tokyo, they would describe so many geese they would block out the sun," said Syroechkovskiy. "Now they are completely gone because of human impact."

And emperor geese, which Delta residents this spring finally got to taste for the first time in 30 years? We share that population with Russia, and it’s still struggling. Syroechkovskiy’s initiative will track where geese species fly in the winter, where their populations are suffering, and why. According to CAFF Secretariat Tom Barry, this big-picture research could impact how these species are managed and could eventually influence hunting in the Delta.

While several of the goose species are endangered by overhunting and increased development, climate change is also playing a part. Black brant geese, for example, might be shifting their migratory patterns away from the Delta and towards the North Slope as the planet warms. Syroechkovskiy said that some migratory species might benefit from climate change, but that plenty won’t.

"We pretend to be rulers of the planet," he said. "So we need to be responsible not only for us, but all other species. Otherwise mother nature will be unhappy with us and we could get on the list of the species that are going to be taken away."