Fish and Wildlife Service

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) conducts research, including inventories and monitoring, in the Arctic to generate information that will help meet its resource management responsibilities. These responsibilities include conservation of migratory birds, certain marine mammals, endangered species, anadromous fishes and all biota inhabiting national wildlife refuges and other FWS lands.

In November 1993, FWS research programs were transferred to the National Biological Survey (NBS), a new bureau that was formed by combining the biological research functions of a number of Interior Department bureaus. In 1996, NBS was reorganized as the Biological Resources Division under the U.S. Geological Survey. The FWS continues to conduct inventory and monitoring programs of biota in the Arctic at both the national and international levels.

Migratory Birds

The FWS in Alaska is responsible for a variety of population monitoring and research efforts in both the Waterfowl Management and Nongame Branches. The Waterfowl Management Branch is primarily responsible for long-term monitoring of waterfowl populations. As a result, activities were virtually identical for 1996 and 1997. Activities in northern Alaska included aerial population monitoring surveys of threatened spectacled and Steller's eiders, an annual survey of breeding waterfowl, and continued monitoring of molting goose populations in the vicinity of Teshekpuk Lake, one of the world's largest known goose molting areas. Activities in interior Alaska included aerial surveys of breeding waterfowl, banding of mid-continent populations of greater white-fronted geese, dabbling duck banding in support of Pacific flyway objectives, trumpeter swan productivity surveys, and trumpeter swan egg collection in support of the continental restoration program. Western Alaska/Bering Sea activities included breeding population and nesting surveys of three species of geese with diminished populations, waterfowl breeding population surveys, Bering Sea winter spectacled eider surveys, emperor goose productivity and spring population surveys, spring staging Steller's eider population surveys, banding of cackling Canada geese in support of Pacific flyway objectives, radio-tracking flights of king eiders in support of an Ecological Services project, and an aerial inventory of the extensive 1997 die-off of marine birds washing up on the shores of Bristol Bay and the Alaska Peninsula. In south-central Alaska and Prince William Sound areas, the Waterfowl Management Branch conducted aerial surveys of Copper River Delta nesting trumpeter swans and breeding bald eagles in the Susitna Valley, cooperative surveys of waterfowl use of a phosphorus-contaminated military firing range, a dusky Canada goose breeding pairs survey, and an aerial survey of waterbirds in Seward Bay in support of an Ecological Services office. Southeast Alaska activities included an aerial survey of wintering waterbirds (1997 only), a Chilkat Valley trumpeter swan survey, and a summer waterbird survey of 20% of southeast Alaska.

Snow geese flying over the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northern Alaska, with the Brooks mountain range in the background.

The Nongame Branch of Migratory Bird Management (MBM) continued to investigate the recovery of species negatively affected by the Exxon Valdez oil spill. MBM continued biannual surveys to monitor population trends of marine birds in Prince William Sound. Other projects were focused on the interactions of seabird predators and their forage fish in Prince William Sound: seabird surveys concurrent with hydroacoustic fish sampling, reproductive biology and foraging ecology of black-legged kittiwakes, and breeding and feeding ecology of pigeon guillemots. The abundance, productivity index and prey selection of marbled murrelets were also investigated in the Sound. MBM conducted surveys of seabirds on Saint Lawrence Island, in cooperation with the villages of Gambel and Savoonga, and continued surveys of seabird colonies in Prince William Sound and on Kodiak Island.

Biologists with MBM conducted surveys on the Yakutat Forelands to assess their importance to migrating shorebirds during the springs of 1996 and 1997. Other landbird and shorebird survey projects included breeding bird inventories of Alaska Army National Guard Training Areas and a breeding bird atlas of the Fort Richardson Army base. A major effort was undertaken to assess bird habitat along Breeding Bird Survey routes in Alaska. MBM continued a fall migration banding station for passerines at Yakutat and collected information on weather patterns and habitat use. Biologists also conducted breeding bird surveys and measured vegetation features on Research Natural Areas on the Tongass National Forest.

Marine Mammals(see note 4)

The FWS in Alaska is responsible for managing three species of marine mammals: polar bears, Pacific walruses and northern sea otters. Of these three species, polar bears and walruses are characteristic of Arctic regions. Populations of both species are shared with Russia, and polar bear populations are also shared with Canada. A major focus of research on these populations relates to international actions that are necessary to conserve populations. The issue of harvest is important because both species have been subject to legal or subsistence harvest or both, and research seeks to develop methods of defining and monitoring populations so that local or region-wide populations will not become depleted. Another issue addressed by research is the identification of important habitat areas and the potential impact of human activities on areas that may be essential for the stability of populations.

Polar Bears
The Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) was established in 1968 in response to concern for overharvest of polar bears. The PBSG comprises scientists and resource managers from the five Arctic nations that manage polar bears. A major function of the PBSG is to oversee research and management activities to ensure their consistency with the 1973 international Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears, signed by all five nations. Between 1989 and 1993 the FWS participated in a study coordinated through the PBSG that was designed to determine the levels of chlorinated hydrocarbons in polar bears from eastern Russia, North America, Greenland and Svalbard, Norway. Findings were finalized in 1996 and have been submitted for publication. Knowledge of the distribution and trends in concentrations of organochlorine contaminants is important in determining the effects on all components of the Arctic ecosystem.

In 1996 and 1997 the FWS continued to collect information regarding polar bears harvested by Native hunters in coastal villages for subsistence purposes. The majority of polar bears are killed during the winter, when advancing pack ice brings bears into contact with coastal Alaska Natives. Harvest numbers are therefore reported on a harvest year basis, which runs from July 1 through June 30. The Alaska harvests during the 1995-96 and 1996-97 harvest years totaled 43 and 86 bears, respectively. The recent harvest trend continues to be approximately 33% below the long-term average.

Polar bears
Female polar bear with cubs on pack ice in the spring near Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.

Tissue specimens (skull muscle, kidney, liver and skin) were also collected to assess the accuracy of sex reported for polar bears harvested during subsistence activities. Samples from harvested animals were collected by FWS biologists and Alaska Native taggers between 1985 and 1995 and submitted for genetic analysis. Specimens were collected from polar bears of the southern Beaufort Sea population and from the Chukchi-Bering Seas population. The results indicate that some misidentification of sex and age does occur in the field. Findings from this study are in preparation for publication.

In 1996 the FWS, in cooperation with the Alaska Nanuuq Commission and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, initiated a polar bear contaminant sampling program. Polar bears are ideally suited for monitoring the level and distribution of heavy metal and organochlorine levels in the Arctic ecosystem because of their position at the top of the Arctic marine food chain and their wide distribution. Alaska Native hunters and taggers were trained in the collection of biological specimens from male polar bears harvested for subsistence purposes. Samples from polar bear liver, kidney, fat and muscle tissue are analyzed for heavy metal and organochlorine concentrations. To date, tissue samples from 12 bears have been collected and submitted for analysis. Collection activities will continue until 60 samples are received.

The Incidental Take Program is another ongoing monitoring effort in Alaska. The purpose of the program is to monitor the activities of industrial development in polar bear habitat and help minimize impacts to polar bears, their habitat and their availability for subsistence use. As part of the incidental take regulations, the FWS was tasked with developing a Habitat Conservation Strategy for Polar Bears in Alaska. Completed in 1995, the strategy identified important habitat areas for polar bears; threats to polar bears and their habitat; land ownership, treaties, laws and agreements that affect habitat management; options for conserving habitat; and research needs. In August 1997 the FWS completed the report Collection of Local Knowledge Regarding Polar Bear Habitat Use in Alaska. This report summarizes information collected during the development of the strategy from Alaska Native polar bear hunters regarding areas used by polar bears for denning, feeding and seasonal movements. A database of den locations was developed that includes all known locations of dens based on traditional knowledge, radiotelemetry and other anecdotal sources of information. This information is used for land use planning activities with the oil and gas industry and other ongoing activities in the Arctic. Local knowledge of polar bear use of coastal beaches and barrier islands alerted scientists to the importance of marine mammal carcasses as a food source for polar bears. Marine mammal carcasses represent tons of potential food for polar bears and may be particularly important for the survival of females with cubs and younger bears during the fall. To document the distribution and abundance of marine mammal carcasses, aerial surveys were conducted in 1995-1997 along the Alaska coast from Nome to the Canadian border. A summary report is in preparation.

In 1996 and 1997 the FWS, in cooperation with the Eskimo Walrus Commission, continued to monitor the spring subsistence harvest of walruses in the Native villages of Gambell, Savoonga, Diomede and Wales. FWS technicians and village residents worked together to collect information on the size and demographics of the spring harvest by conducting hunter interviews and obtaining biological samples. This information is used to assess the size and composition of the harvest and to study aspects of walrus population dynamics and life history.

In 1996 and 1997 the FWS, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the Bristol Bay Native Association teamed up to monitor walrus numbers and human disturbances at terrestrial walrus haulouts in Bristol Bay. Each summer, thousands of male walruses migrate to Bristol Bay to rest, molt and replenish body reserves lost during the breeding season. Bristol Bay, Alaska, represents critical habitat for the largest aggregation of Pacific walruses in North America. Daily count data collected by haulout monitors have been incorporated into a database to monitor trends in walrus numbers and habitat use patterns within Bristol Bay. Monitors also participated in a study to identify the effects of anthropogenic disturbances on haulout use and collaborated with Native hunters in the development and implementation of a harvest monitoring and biosampling program centered on a subsistence walrus hunt at Round Island.

Between 1975 and 1990 information on the size of the Pacific walrus population was collected through a series of aerial surveys conducted jointly by the U.S. and Russia. The last aerial survey flown in 1990 produced a population estimate of approximately 200,000 animals. Range-wide surveys were suspended in 1995 because of budgetary constraints. Although there are no immediate plans to conduct another survey, future cooperative work to evaluate the size and trend of the Pacific walrus population is considered a high priority by both nations. In 1996 and 1997 the FWS began investigating the feasibility of using satellite imagery to count walruses. This technology may prove to be cheaper and safer than flying aerial surveys.

Fisheries(see note 5)

FWS fishery research in the Arctic focuses on Yukon River salmon, an anadromous resource shared by the U.S. and Canada. Allocation of the harvest has been an international issue. Research objectives by the FWS have been to use state-of-the-art enumeration techniques to quantify salmon abundance and monitor resource health and to employ genetic stock identification (GSI) techniques to quantify genetic diversity and determine what portions of harvested populations are of U.S. and Canadian origin. The Alaska Region of the FWS has participated in U.S.-Canada Yukon River Treaty negotiations under the Pacific Salmon Treaty and has been instrumental in providing technical guidance in support of the international negotiations. As part of that effort the Fairbanks Fishery Resource Office, in cooperation with the National Marine Fisheries Service, is conducting a combined mark-recapture (mass marking) and radiotelemetry study on fall chum salmon to provide fishery managers with information on total and stock-specific abundance, stock composition, run timing and locations of undocumented spawning areas in the upper Yukon Basin. Some Yukon River fall chum salmon travel more than 3500 km before spawning, the longest freshwater salmon spawning migration in the world. Fishwheels operated in the mainstem Yukon River, upstream of the Tanana River, are used to capture chum salmon for both the marking and recapture events. Mark-recapture population estimates from 1996 and 1997 compare favorably with independent estimates derived from up-river harvests and escapement monitoring. In 1997, remote tracking stations for radiotelemetry were installed at sites on the U.S.-Canada border, and additional sites were located on major spawning tributaries within the upper drainage.

In 1997 the FWS enumerated salmon escapements on four Yukon River tributaries, including the Chandalar, South Fork Koyukuk, Gisasa and East Fork Andreafsky Rivers. To maintain biodiversity and resource health an adequate number of salmon in any particular stock must be permitted to return to their natal stream of origin. The number that returns to spawn is called escapement. Escapement information is used to schedule fishery openings and to ensure stock conservation, so it is crucial that fisheries managers have accurate and timely information. The FWS has operated floating resistance board weirs and split-beam sonar to ensure adequate escapement of salmon stocks on National Wildlife Refuges. Floating weirs spanning 100 m have been used to count over 500,000 salmon in Yukon River tributaries. The FWS has also pioneered the development of split-beam sonar technology to enumerate riverine populations of adult salmon.

The FWS Fish Genetics Laboratory initiated two genetic stock identification projects in 1997. In a continuing effort to improve the utility of the GSI methods for stock discrimination, the Fish Genetics Laboratory has initiated a three-year project to improve stock discrimination of Yukon River fall chum salmon. This project supports interjurisdictional efforts to rebuild fall chum salmon stocks and improve the ability of managers to better allocate the catch among users. Molecular genetic methods are being used to evaluate the suitability of several classes of genetic markers for stock discrimination, with special emphasis being placed on separating U.S.- and Canadian-origin fall chum stocks. Genetic profiles of representative spawning stocks from throughout the Yukon River drainage will be established using the new genetic markers. The discriminatory performance of the new markers will then be evaluated.

The second genetic study initiated in 1997 is a three-year project to develop a genetic baseline for coho salmon. The new baseline will provide fisheries biologists and managers a tool to achieve biological diversity, conservation and harvest goals. The project is phased to include collections from spawning stocks in various regions of the state (including the Yukon River), testing and development of genetic markers, and develop-ment of genetic profiles for the spawning stocks. The molecular genetic methods being used permit the application of nonlethal sampling methods for collections, greatly simplifying the field logistics and resulting in more collections in a shorter period. The results of this project will have application not only in Alaska but also throughout the entire geographic range of coho salmon.

On the Selawik National Wildlife Refuge and Kobuk Valley National Park, sheefish support substantial subsistence fisheries that are of great practical and cultural importance to the residents of the region. In cooperation with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the FWS initiated a study in 1994 to quantify the distribution, abundance, genetics and life history characteristics of Selawik and Kobuk River sheefish populations. Distribution and abundance were assessed with mark-recapture techniques. To locate spawning grounds, adult sheefish were surgically implanted with radio transmitters to permit biologists to track their movements from airplanes and boats. The Fish Genetics Laboratory characterized the genetic substructuring of the population using nonlethal tissue sampling and new molecular genetics methods. Several FWS technical publications are in preparation that will help guide managers in conserving this unique stock.

In 1997 the FWS conducted research on sheefish in the upper Yukon River. Sheefish are known to be highly migratory within many Arctic river systems and exhibit both anadromous and freshwater resident life history forms. The sheefish at the FWS research site were suspected to be anadromous and to spawn in various areas throughout the upper river, including the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge. Through radiotelemetry, the FWS confirmed that spawning areas occur on the Yukon Flats NWR. Anadromous behavior was verified by using a complex micro chemical technique on sheefish otoliths, which retain a chemical record of passage into salt water. The distance between the spawning areas and salt water exceeds 2000 km, one of the longest recorded migrations for this species. Continuing work next year may further expand our knowledge of the migratory range of these Arctic fish.

International Circumpolar Activities-Area V

Since 1972 the U.S. and Russia have been involved in international negotiations regarding the protection of nature and the organization of reserves. In 1994 the U.S.-Russia Environmental Agreement was signed (renegotiated from the 1972 U.S.-U.S.S.R. Environmental Agreement). Under this agreement, conservation agencies and other organizations in both countries actively sponsor exchanges of American and Russian specialists in rare and endangered fauna and flora, refuges and reserves, migratory birds, marine mammals, fish husbandry and terrestrial/marine ecosystem biodiversity. Joint projects have made significant contributions to the protection and management of shared species.

The FWS is involved in a number of Area V initiatives. The Conservation of Wild Species of Fauna and Flora and the Protection of Natural Areas project's primary goal is to promote conservation of individual species or groups of species (especially migratory) and their habitats. Biologists from both countries continually exchange expertise and collaborate in field studies to contribute to scientific knowledge and foster a more effective management approach. Six activities comprise the work of this project:

Another Area V initiative that FWS leads is the Aleutian Chain Biodiversity Project, which focuses on joint studies of the species occurring in national wildlife refuges of southeastern Alaska, the Alaska Peninsula and the Aleutian Islands and the nature reserves of northeastern Russia, the Kamchatka Peninsula and the Commander Islands of Russia. The establishment of a Sister Refuge program was proposed for 1996 where scientists and information will be exchanged regarding inventory and monitoring of brown bears, migrating raptors and coastal plant communities.

Over the years the Area V Environmental Protection Agreement between the United States and Russia has provided a conduit for the exchange of information. Cooperative studies of the biology, ecology and population dynamics of marine mammals species are also underway. FWS species studied under the Area V initiatives include polar bears, Pacific walruses and sea otters.

The Polar Bear Specialist Group recognized the need for unified conservation efforts between the U.S. and Alaska for the shared Bering-Chukchi Seas population of polar bears. After several years of negotiations and public review, a draft government-to-government agreement and companion Alaska-Chukotka Native-to-Native agreement was completed in 1997. These agreements would provide a basis for developing unified and comprehensive management programs, including provisions for conducting joint research. The U.S. Department of State has granted negotiating authority for the development of this agreement. A negotiating meeting was scheduled for February 1998.

The routine exchange of publications and harvest data between the U.S. and Russia has advanced understanding of walrus biology and helped the FWS track the status of the population. In 1997 both sides began working to develop a database that will consolidate data from aerial surveys, haulout counts, harvest data, disturbance studies, biological collections and habitat studies. When completed, this database will be made available to researchers and managers in both countries. In November 1997 the sixth U.S.-Russia workshop on sea otters was held in the state of Washington. Scientists representing Canada, Japan, the Russian Federation and the U.S. attended. Research efforts and information regarding population estimates of sea otters in their ranges bordering these countries were summarized. The results of studies were presented in areas such as sea otter food consumption and foraging including ecosystem effects, contaminant exposure monitoring, and reproductive and genetic studies involving captive or rehabilitated sea otters. Several U.S.-Russia collaborative projects were proposed in the area of genetics, contaminant research, population monitoring and research into general sea otter biology and life history. The next joint workshop is planned for 1999 in Russia.

The Animal and Plant Ecology Project focuses on cooperative research into the ecology of single species and communities of fauna and flora in the U.S. and Russia. Activities include studies of:

The Area V Ichthyology and Aquaculture Project seeks to improve fisheries management, increase productivity through intensive fish culture, restore fishery resources, and exchange information on the physiology, nutrition, diseases, genetics and reproductive biotechnology of mutual fish species.

The FWS also leads the effort to facilitate cooperation in wildlife trade and law enforcement activities to provide technical assistance and training for the conservation of endangered species in the Russian Far East. In addition, conservation education efforts are underway to enhance public awareness of and commitment to the need to conserve wild species of flora and fauna, as well as their habitats.

Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna(see note 6)

The FWS Alaska in the lead agency for Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF), an international initiative that falls under the umbrella formerly known as the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS), recently reorganized as the Arctic Council. CAFF is one of four programs formed under AEPS, which was adopted by Canada, Denmark/Greenland, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the U.S. in 1991. The FWS participates on the CAFF International Working Group, which was established in 1992 and consists of scientists, conservation managers and indigenous peoples of the Arctic. CAFF provides a circumpolar forum in which a wide range of Arctic conservation issues can be discussed. CAFF's focus is biodiversity, habitat conserva-tion, species conservation within an ecosystem approach and the integration of indigenous peoples and their knowledge into the work of CAFF. In 1996 and 1997 FWS work under CAFF focused on inventory and mapping of Arctic vegetation, development of conservation strategies for murres and eiders, and development of a strategy and action plan for the Circumpolar Protected Areas Network (CPAN). Future work of CAFF will be directed by the Strategy for the Conservation of Biological Diversity in the Arctic Region.