For two weeks every spring, when snow geese are migrating north and the sun never sets, life in the Arctic hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk grinds to a halt. Inuvialuit families head out to the tundra for an age-old hunt.
For as long as the geese ran over the traditional Beaufort Delta, village of 900, in May, the hamlet office sat empty. Mayor Erwin Elias was unreachable. Michele Tomasino, vice-principal of Mangilaluk School, noted that just one of her students had shown up for class during the run. She doesn’t blame parents, but the stubbornness of a school system that refuses to adapt to Inuvialuit tradition.
While the migration may be ancient, the extraordinary number of snow geese flying over Tuk is something new. In a climate twist, the snow goose population has exploded in recent years, reaching 15 million, up from just a few thousand in the early 1900s, when the birds were hunted almost to extinction.
Their numbers are growing because of two things that are decimating so many other bird species: climate change and habitat loss. Rapid snow melt in the birds’ Arctic breeding grounds is providing more food and sites to nest. To the south, a loss of marshland is pushing the geese into farmers’ fields, where they’re growing fat on a new diet of grain and corn.
Though the lily-white geese now enjoy the status of “least concern” in bird registries, scientists are in fact extremely concerned by their ballooning numbers. What seems to be a runaway success in conservation risks triggering an environmental disaster, both in the Arctic and the geese’s winter home on Canada’s Pacific Coast.
Hunting geese on the Beaufort Sea in springtime carries risks. Beneath the glare of the 24-hour sun, the sea ice is thinning rapidly. On the shoreline, it is long gone. Hunters on snowmobiles have to skid through 50 metres of open water to climb onto the ice and onward to hunting grounds east of Tuk. Beyond, the open ocean is pockmarked with pools of navy-blue water.
Jojo Arey, who lives in Inuvik, the gateway to the Western Arctic, where he works for the gas authority, brings only the essentials for the weekend hunt: a shotgun, a wooden sled and a piece of caribou skin to keep him from getting soaked as he crouches in wait on the wet tundra.
He does not have to huddle long.
The snow geese, whose wingtips look like they were dipped in black ink, arrive in waves – one long, undulating skein of white after another, riding the cold wash of the Arctic winds. They don’t sound their arrival with a cacophony of honks as in the south. They pass silently in tight, urgent aggregations. They seem to have learned that here at the tail-end of their epic migration, where round hills known as pingos dot the treeless landscape and belugas fill the waters, danger is everywhere.
Indeed, within two kilometres, a dozen Inuvialuit hunters crouch behind blinds, their gun barrels pointed skyward. In the distance, an Arctic fox ghosts past, soundless on the spongy tundra.
Mr. Arey, who gave up high school to trap and whale with his father, lures a small flock to ground by mimicking their sharp, one-beat cry – more like a puppy’s yelp than the mournful call of a Canada goose. When the birds enter shotgun range, he and Greg Elias, a friend, rise in unison, knocking four from the sky.
Mr. Elias, who grew up near the birds’ nesting grounds on Banks Island, hardly ever misses a shot. The young father is descended from a distinguished line of hunters. While still a teenager, he killed the polar bear that now towers over the lobby of Yellowknife’s Explorer Hotel.
He and Mr. Arey also shoot specklebellies, another Arctic goose species, but never the Canadas passing overhead. “Butt eaters,” is how people here refer to Canada geese, who are thought to survive southern winters on pizza crusts and cigarette butts.
Both men are hunting to feed elders. The Inuvialuit have rejected calls for a cull to deal with the runaway goose population, considering it wasteful and disrespectful to the animal and the environment. Instead, they encourage the hunt by paying Inuvialuit hunters a nominal amount – $20 a bird. The geese are plucked and butchered at a country-food processing plant run by the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, then donated to those in need.
For Mr. Arey and Mr. Elias, the spring goose hunt is a family affair. On the land, their kids play string games and snack on muktuk – beluga skin, which is eaten raw in tiny cubes. The hunt is as much about preserving tradition and celebrating the end of the frigid winter as it is about stocking the freezer.
At night, while the sun sits high in the sky and the giddy kids refuse to sleep, Mr. Arey tells stories of his father, Joe. “Everything I am is because of him,” he says.
When his son A.J. was born, his dad counselled him to take the boy everywhere he went. “Otherwise,” he said, “it will end with you.” He meant the knowledge Mr. Arey had acquired over a lifetime on the land: how to run sled dogs, track grizzlies, navigate without a map.
Those geese who made it past Mr. Arey and Mr. Elias were headed 400 kilometres across the Beaufort Sea to Banks Island to lay their eggs and raise their young. Their nesting population on the island has risen from 165,000 in 1976, to one million today. Scientists believe these numbers are beyond the capacity of the fragile habitat and risk triggering what’s known as a “trophic cascade”: changes that ripple through an ecosystem, from top to bottom.
On the Fraser River Estuary in southern B.C., the winter home of another snow geese population, the harm is already apparent.
Sean Boyd, a bird biologist with Environment and Climate Change Canada, expects 150,000 geese will return to the saltwater marsh at the mouth of the Fraser River next winter – 10 times more than in the 1980s, and way beyond what the delicate marsh can accommodate.
In an effort to reduce their numbers, jurisdictions across Canada and in the United States have experimented with increasing the snow goose hunt – by adding spring hunts and removing daily bag limits. But B.C. is way beyond this, Mr. Boyd notes: The region is home to too few hunters and far too many fowl.
The estuary, a half-hour’s drive from downtown Vancouver, is a globally important refuge for upward of one million birds. More than 100 endangered and threatened species, from killer whales to butterflies to salmon also call it home.
The problem, Mr. Boyd explains, is that snow geese are voracious eaters and have a tendency to rip bulrushes from the ground, root and all, degrading the saltmarsh.
In 1989, Mr. Boyd set up monitoring equipment while studying the feeding habits of snow geese. In 2011, he decided to check on his old equipment. It was gone. And so was the entire segment of marsh he had been studying. In all, 160 hectares of tidal marsh had died off. Geese alone are not to blame, Mr. Boyd notes. Extensive dredging and diking are also driving the estuary’s degradation.
Scientists who study migratory birds are unused to this problem – of having too many birds. Ultimately, the story of how climate change transforms an ecosystem will never be straightforward, Mr. Boyd adds. These are the kinds of conservation conundrums climate change will continue to unearth.
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