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Service Takes Action to Protect Imperiled Arctic Breeding Gr



     

  February 12, 1999Chris Tollefson  202-208-5634
     
     SERVICE TAKES ACTION TO PROTECT IMPERILED ARCTIC BREEDING GROUNDS
     
     On February 16, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will implement 
     two rules that begin a historic multi-national effort to save 
     fragile arctic habitats from irreversible damage caused by 
     exploding light goose populations.
     
     After extensive consultation with the Canadian government and a 
     rulemaking process that generated hundreds of public comments, 
     the Service will publish two final rules in the February 16 
     Federal Register that will allow 24 Midwestern and southern 
     states to take conservation measures aimed at reducing the 
     population of mid-continent light geese.
     
     The rules will give these states the flexibility to allow the use 
     of normally prohibited electronic goose calls and unplugged 
     shotguns during the remaining weeks of their light goose seasons 
     this year, provided that other waterfowl and crane seasons have 
     been closed.  States have also been given the authority to 
     implement a conservation order under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act 
     that would allow hunters to take light geese outside of 
     traditional migratory bird hunting season frameworks.  Both rules 
     will give states a better opportunity to increase their light 
     goose harvests.
     
     The Service's action will begin to address an ecological crisis 
     caused by an explosion in mid-continent populations of lesser 
     snow geese and Ross' geese, collectively known as "light" geese, 
     from an estimated 800,000 geese in the 1960s to more than 3 
     million today.  Service biologists consider this to be a 
     conservative estimate, and the actual population may be as high 
     as 5 million birds.  This is far more geese than the fragile 
     arctic tundra with its short growing season can support. 
     
     "For years, the United States has inadvertently contributed to 
     the growth of this problem through changes in agricultural and 
     wetland management.  Now we can begin to say we're part of the 
     solution," said Service Director Jamie Rappaport Clark.  "If we 
     do not take action, we risk not only the health of the arctic 
     breeding grounds but also the future of many of America's 
     migratory bird populations."
     
     Increasing agricultural and refuge development along waterfowl 
     flyways through the Midwest and South have provided light geese 
     with ample forage during their yearly migrations.  As a result, 
     adult mortality rates for light geese have fallen steadily over 
     the past three decades, triggering explosive population growth.
     
     Light geese feed by pulling up and eating the roots of plants, a 
     natural practice known as "grubbing."  At healthy population 
     levels, grubbing actually helps stimulate plant growth in salt 
     marshes.  But competition for food has pushed geese to over-graze 
     these areas, denuding large swaths of vital summer plant growth. 
     Scientists believe that this habitat degradation, which takes years 
     to recover in the short arctic growing season and which, in many 
     areas, may be permanent, has contributed to declining populations 
     of more than 30 other migratory bird species that share the 
     breeding grounds. 
     
     In 1996, biologists surveying the 1,200-mile stretch of coastline 
     along west Hudson Bay and James Bay where the birds nest 
     estimated that 35 percent of the original habitat was destroyed, 
     another 30 percent severely damaged, and the remaining 35 percent 
     overgrazed.  The breeding grounds around Canada's Hudson Bay 
     support dozens of migratory bird species that winter in the 
     United States or migrate through it on the way to South America.
     
     Many bird species that nest in the same areas as the geese show 
     signs of decline or have otherwise been affected, including semi- 
     palmated sandpipers, red-necked phalaropes, dowitchers, Hudsonian 
     godwits, whimbrels, stilt sandpipers, yellow rails, American 
     wigeons, northern shovelers, oldsquaws, red-breasted mergansers, 
     parasitic jaegers, and Lapland longspurs, among others.  In 
     addition, the southern James Bay population of Canada geese is 
     declining, presumably because of habitat degradation caused by 
     light geese. 
     
     "We must now face the challenge of managing overabundant wildlife 
     that threatens fragile habitats and species," said Frank Gill, 
     the National Audubon Society's senior vice president for science. 
     "Simply letting 'nature take its course' is no longer valid in 
     balancing globally important ecosystems altered by man."
     
     The Canadian Wildlife Service is currently conducting its own 
     regulatory impact analysis statement on the overabundant light 
     goose problem.  The agency has also proposed regulatory changes 
     for the 1999/2000 hunting season for certain provinces that 
     include a number of the same measures that will be taken in the 
     United States.
     
     "The scientific evidence of a growing environmental problem on 
     the arctic breeding grounds is indisputable," said Gerald 
     McKeating, regional director of Environmental Conservation 
     Branch, Environment Canada, Prairie and Northern Region.  "The 
     steps taken by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to address this 
     problem have been developed in close partnership with the 
     Canadian Wildlife Service and continue to have our strong 
     support."
     
     Clark stressed that the new rules are a crucial initial step in 
     trying to reduce the light goose population.  The Service is also 
     changing the way it manages national wildlife refuges in the mid- 
     continent region to make them less attractive to snow geese. 
     She also announced that the Service will seek input from its 
     partners and other interested organizations and individuals to 
     begin to determine the scope and participants for a long-term 
     study of other potential control measures.
     
     "We need to act immediately to stop and reverse the insidious 
     habitat destruction currently taking place in the arctic.  But by 
     doing so, we are not ruling out any other solutions that could 
     help solve this problem and ensure healthy population levels for 
     the future," said Clark.
     
     The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the principal Federal agency 
     responsible for conserving, protecting, and enhancing fish and 
     wildlife and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the 
     American people.  The Service manages the 93-million-acre National 
     Wildlife Refuge System comprised of more than 500 national 
     wildlife refuges, thousands of small wetlands, and other special 
     management areas.  It also operates 66 national fish hatcheries 
     and 78 ecological services field stations.  The agency enforces 
     Federal wildlife laws, administers the Endangered Species Act, 
     manages migratory bird populations, restores nationally 
     significant fisheries, conserves and restores wildlife habitat 
     such as wetlands, and helps foreign governments with their 
     conservation efforts.  It also oversees the Federal Aid program 
     that distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in excise taxes 
     on fishing and hunting equipment to state fish and wildlife 
     agencies. 
     
                                   -FWS-
     

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