As Spring Returns

Conservation measures are needed for the Emporer Goose whose numbers are in decline. Photo courtesy of USFWS

by Gisela Chapa

An unusually snowy winter seems to have overextended its stay at the Delta. “This is the most snow we’ve seen in decades,” is a common phrase I hear in conversations about the much-desired change of season.

The anticipation of spring even seems to lead the conversation on social media; some very eager birdwatchers share their sightings with enthusiasm to fellow Facebook users on the group “Birds of Bethel AK.”

On March 31, 2021, one user shared “Gulls spotted near Toksook over the weekend. Spring is getting closer!” The thought of spring and snowmelt delighted me.

The excitement over the arrival of spring birds is shared by Yup’ik people who, for generations, have welcomed ducks and geese back to the Delta. One of the special birds in our region is the emperor goose known locally as nacaullek. I have been told that the emperor is delicious, although for some it has not always been part of the meal.

Emperor geese have a long and complicated history. Their population declined dramatically in the 1980s, threatening the custom of its gifts to the people long term. Concerned for the future of the species and those that depend on it, hunting and egging were closed to give the geese a chance to grow in numbers to a level acceptable for future harvest.

The population rose slowly over nearly 30 years. Children born in this lifetime grew up without this custom as families across the coastal Villages of the Delta made sacrifices not to hunt or egg this bird.

In 2017, the emperor goose population grew to a level that allowed for a customary and traditional hunt for the first time in decades. You may know someone who lived through this closure and can share more details of their experiences, but better yet, you can probably meet someone who has enjoyed the goose for the first time and tell you all about it.

Why am I sharing all this? Today, people face a similar dilemma. Emperor geese numbers are in “apparent decline,” meaning that there are some conservation measures that you should be aware of if you catch emperors. The hunt is open but take only what you need. The Elders in your Village probably remember the hardships they have endured in the past during the hunt closure. It is important to remember that when we hunt, we hunt with our children’s future in mind. More importantly, be aware that egging is closed statewide.

Flyers about emperor geese, like the one seen in this edition of the Delta Discovery, will be published, and shared throughout coastal communities. That way, in your conversations about spring and the return of the birds, you can also mention the conservation measures to follow so that future generations can enjoy the emperor goose as food for years to come. Stay tuned as more information will be shared by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as spring slowly makes its way back to the Delta.

Gisela Chapa is a Wildlife Refuge Specialist for the National Wildlife Refuge System, Alaska.