Wild Goose Chase Helps Save Wild Goose

Article excerpt

Through 25-foot swells, the small boat crept along on its 200-mile journey. Below decks in the engine room, John Martin fought back waves of nausea brought on by diesel fumes and the heaving sea. His job: to keep four dozen endangered goose eggs close enough to the engine to stay warm, but not so close that they would cook.

Until his recent retirement, John was Manager of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, the most expansive refuge in the nation. Twenty years after his stint as a sometimes queasy caretaker of endangered eggs, he no longer needs Dramamine as a dietary supplement. Also retired is the office chair from which he helped direct one of the most dramatic endangered species success stories to date: the recovery of the Aleutian Canada goose (Branta canadensis leucopareia).

This goose is not the same resident critter that defiles soccer fields and cemeteries across the U.S. Instead, it nests in the Aleutian Islands, an archipelago that extends from southeastern Alaska hundreds of miles into the Pacific. In fact, the Aleutian Canada goose is the only subspecies of Canada goose that nests exclusively on islands, and the only one with a range that reaches into Asia. However, despite its remote breeding territory and wide range, this bird very nearly disappeared.

By the late 1800's, the fur trade came close to driving the Aleutian Canada goose into extinction. On almost every island where this goose bred, fox farmers released arctic and red foxes (Alopex lagopus and Vulpes vulpes, respectively), leaving these non-native predators to fend for themselves. The trappers returned when the foxes were in thick winter pelage. During spring and summer, the foxes feasted upon the geese. Eggs, incubating adults, flightless molting birds, and young--the foxes ate them all. Other island nesting birds, such as puffins and petrels, also were hit hard, but none as badly as the Aleutian Canada goose.

By 1936, foxes had been introduced to an astounding 190 islands within the breeding range of the Aleutian Canada goose. For a time, biologists thought this unique bird had become extinct. But there was one place they hadn't looked.

At the far end of the Aleutian chain sits a steep-sided volcano, Buldir Island. Surrounded by crashing surf, there is no place on its perimeter to land a boat. This presented a serious challenge to biologists wanting to survey the island for remnant geese. But the island's inhospitable coast was actually the goose's greatest salvation; what kept biologists out apparently kept fox farmers out, too. This fox-free habitat turned out to be the goose's last refuge. A 1963 expedition to Buldir found 200-300 geese.

Early recovery efforts focused on raising captive flocks from wild eggs (hence John Martin's egg-sitting job). After several months, the young birds were released on small fox-free islands. …