A gaggle of Aleutian Cackling geese grazed outside of the visitor center at the Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge, 10 miles south of Eureka. The gray and black waterfowl promenaded slowly over the lawn, plucking beakfulls of grass. Behind the visitor center thousands more dotted the sun-lit fields and sloughs of the refuge, and their nasal yelps echoed over the cattails.
On March 5 and 6, the refuge will open its gates early to host the ninth annual Aleutian Goose Fly-Off. In past years hundreds of people flocked to the refuge from all over Northern California and beyond to celebrate what refuge park ranger Sean Brophy called one of the Endangered Species Act's most unusual success stories.
The Aleutians are safely back from their brush with extinction, but by the late 1990s and early 2000s their prodigious grass consumption brought them into conflict with cattle farmers who were concerned that they were paying the tab on the species' revival. Brophy said, however, improved public land management and a special late-season hunt on private lands have done wonders to improve relations in recent years.
Tom Dematte of McKinleyville and Kevenn McWay of Eureka walked along the gravel trail through the refuge's marshes. Armed with binoculars, they weren't just looking for geese, but McWay said that the Aleutians were a treat. "They're nice to look at," said Dematte. "They make a nice sound." He glanced around. "They're abundant."
This year will mark the 10th anniversary of the Aleutian Cackling Goose's removal from the Endangered Species List. When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department enacted the removal in March 2001, the agency noted that the goose was once believed to have gone extinct. In 1962 biologist Bob Jones discovered a small nesting colony on a remote island in the western Aleutians off the Alaska Peninsula. Nobody had seen one for more than 20 years.
Here's why: In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Russian fur traders, hoping for a quick profit, introduced Arctic and red foxes to the goose's island nesting grounds. The foxes devoured defenseless eggs, goslings, and molting geese, and swiftly drove the Aleutian Goose toward extinction. "Wild Goose Chase," a January 2001 article in Smithsonian Magazine, tells the story of Jones' discovery on Buldir Island. Fish and Wildlife conducted a count later that year and found only 200 to 300 birds left.
Distinguished from their bigger Canada cousins by their squatter features and the white ring at the base of their neck, the Aleutian Cackling Goose was among the first species put on the Endangered Species List in the 1960s. By the time the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, the Fish and Wildlife Service's recovery plan was already underway.
The agency prohibited hunting throughout the goose's wintering grounds near Modesto and their migration path through Northern California and Oregon. They exterminated the foxes from many of the Aleutians Islands and re-established breeding colonies once the islands were deemed safe. The goose's numbers rebounded, increasing by up to 35 percent annually in the years after 1975, according to the Fish and Wildlife report.
Fish and Wildlife biologist John Fay said that the geese were lucky that foxes were their main problem. "The thing about the Aleutian Geese, it was a single thing that knocked them down," he said. Once the foxes were removed from the islands, the Aleutians' recovery was quick. "For most endangered species it's a much more complicated problem," Fay said. "For some we don't even understand the cause of their decline."
Brophy said that the size of the Aleutian Goose population prior to its near-extinction is something of a mystery. "It could have been 100,000; it could have been 2 million," he said.
Farmer Blake Alexandre of Crescent City witnessed the revival of the geese firsthand, but for him, it wasn't always a good thing. "I've been here 20 years," he said. "We had 5,000 to 7,000 hanging out, and back then that was most of the population." Still, it was enough to significantly impact Alexandre and his 2,000-acre farm. "They'll go through a thousand acres pretty fast," he said.
The geese love to chow down on the lush, green pastures that farmers like Alexandre need to feed their livestock. He estimated that between the feed he bought to replace what the birds were eating and the hours he spent trying to keep them away, he was loosing upwards of $40,000 each year.
By 2000, farmers from all over Humboldt and Del Norte counties echoed Alexandre's frustration with the growing numbers of geese. "Everything the birds eat the cows don't eat, so it costs me," said Loleta cattle rancher Jay Russ.
Hoping for a solution and confident in the goose's rebounding numbers, the state legislature passed the Shared Habitat Alliance for Recreational Enhancement (SHARE) in 2003. The program lets farmers with goose problems sign up to allow hunters onto their land for a special late-season opening. The hunt is now in its fifth year and is by all accounts a success.
Marty McClelland is the hunt program director on the North Coast. "The farmers like it," he said, "because it gets hunters out there to keep the geese moving." McClelland added that there are five areas open to the hunt this year in Humboldt and Del Norte counties, totaling about 2,000 acres.
Russ's farm is one of those participating. Last week he hosted a group of hunters from the Los Angeles area. He said that people commonly come from all over the state for the hunt and spend money in the local economy. "I think this public SHARE program is a great program," Russ said.
Ranger Brophy said that the SHARE program seems to help move the geese onto public land, but that the main reason farmers aren't having the same problems they had five or 10 years ago is because of better land management by Fish and Wildlife. Rangers keep cows on government-owned pastures in the summer, which helps create conditions more attractive to the geese, and they planted different species of grass and clover. "They really like the clover," Brophy said.
So everyone can live with the geese now, right? Lieutenant Rick Banko of the California Department of Fish and Game in Arcata seemed to think so. "We love having them," he said. "Only ranchers mind the geese. And even they seem to be coming around." He estimated the current Aleutian Cackling Goose population is at least 120,000, and that most of them fly through Humboldt on their way back to the Aleutians. "There's not too many kinds of endangered species that make the kind of comeback that this goose has," Bankso said.
Back in the Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge, Eureka resident Kevenn McWay said that when she first moved to Humboldt from San Diego in 1991, she never heard the geese. Around 2000 she first noticed their high-pitched, squeaking honk, and it wasn't long before she saw their V-formations winging over her house. "It's awfully early to get up," McWay said of the refuge's Fly-Off event, when the geese lift off from the fields at dawn. "But it's quite a sight. It's really something to do once in your life."
Brophy said that the gates will open around 6 a.m., and the geese typically take off around 6:45. In past years, between 30,000 and 40,000 geese took off at once he said. "It looks almost like a cloud of smoke rising off the ground, there's so many of them. It's a pretty big spectacle."
Brophy said that in the end, people from all sides of the issue worked together to bring the geese back and make them livable neighbors. "I think one of the lessons is that when conflicts arise between wildlife and people you can usually work it out. We got farmers, biologists, and land managers in the same room to work out a science-based solution."
Zach St. George, a native of Alaska, is a journalism student at HSU. This is his first story for the Journal.
Inset: The Aleutian goose through time
8,000 BC Around the time Aleutian Cackling geese evolved as a separate subspecies on the Aleutian Island Chain
1750 AD First introduction of Arctic and red foxes to nesting grounds
1940 Aleutian Cackling geese thought to be extinct
1962 Small colony discovered on Buldir Island, population estimated 200 – 300.
1967 Aleutian Goose declared officially endangered under Endangered Species Protection Act of 1966
1973 Endangered Species Act passed into law
1975 Fish and Wildlife begins formal recovery program, population estimated 790 birds
1990 Population reaches 6,300 birds
1999 Population reaches 37,000, more than five times the original goal for de-listing. Fish and Wildlife proposes delisting the species
2001 Aleutian Cackling goose officially taken off of the Endangered Species list
Source: North Coast Journal research
Inset: Places to go see Aleutian geese in Humboldt County
Jackson Ranch Road and Mad River Road in Arcata Bottoms
City of Arcata pastures between
Old Arcata Road and Hwy. 101
Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge
Fish and Game property in Bayside and Mad River. IMPORTANT – NOT open during late season hunt. Open again
to the public after March 10.
Aleutian Cackling Goose
Branta hutchinsii leucopareia
4 – 5 pounds
Squat, comparatively short neck
White ring around base of neck
Aleutians in Humboldt are in large flocks
Western Canada Goose
Comparatively long neck
Canadas in Humboldt travel in
smaller family groups