Drama in an Untamed Ecosystem

While people wrestle over the future of Alaska's Copper River Delta, nature has been unfolding her own plans for the habitat and its creatures

  • Sharon Begley
  • Apr 01, 1999
Mike Anthony and James B. Grand, who everyone calls Barry, basically spent the month of May last year walking. And walking. Walking as much as 10 hours a day, usually along old sloughs, through brush more than 3 feet tall, in the 5 square miles of Alaska's Copper River Delta they chose as their study site. For the whole month, the two U.S. Geological Survey biologists, along with several helpers, kept a sharp eye out for nests of the dusky Canada goose.
The dusky, one of 11 subspecies, looks a lot like your basic Canada goose, except for its breast feathers: They're the color of cocoa rather than battleship gray. And unlike Canada geese that spend the summer in south-central Alaska and Anchorage or elsewhere, duskies are more particular: The 11,000 or so left in the world breed almost entirely on the Copper River Delta.

Since the dusky's nesting success has been lousy lately - about one-third of the nests produce goslings - the scientists wanted to know why. So as they came upon nest after nest hidden none-too-well in the underbrush, they occasionally set out a 35mm autowind camera. They then attached a switch to one of five or six tawny eggs in the nest in question and wired the shutter so that if the egg was disturbed the camera clicked. Call it biology's version of a jewelry-store security camera: The setup was meant to collect photographic evidence of what was pilfering dusky eggs.

That evidence has been helping to chronicle part of a momentous ecological drama, and the dusky research put the team in one huge front-row seat. Long considered a wetland of unparalleled importance, "the Copper River Delta is one of the most productive, beautiful and untamed wetland ecosystems in the world," says Anthony Turrini, director of NWF's Alaska Office. It is also undergoing vast change. And although the mineral and timber resources here are rich enough to have tempted miners and loggers for decades, this drama is due to nature's own tampering, not human intervention.

That's because the delta is a tectonic hot spot. In 1964 it rose up--literally: The Good Friday earthquake of that year lifted the delta 6 to 9 feet and left it in the new position. As a result, says Grand, "The whole area was converted from a salt marsh, which was dominated by sedges and grass and regularly inundated by tidal sloughs, into a freshwater system. The tides do not reach high enough to suppress the growth of brush and trees by delivering brackish water inland." Through natural succession, the tidal marsh gave way to freshwater sedges and grasses, which now are being replaced by willows, alders, cottonwoods and spruces. But these habitat changes alone aren't enough to explain the dusky's problems, and they haven't noticeably created problems for other wildlife here.

Located where the Copper River and other nearby waterways empty into the Gulf of Alaska, the delta fans out from the base of the Chugach Mountains. From there it spreads south in a glorious green, gold and brown tapestry of meadows, marshes and mud flats, all cut through with streams and ponds. Yellow marsh marigolds dot the landscape, jagged snow-frosted peaks loom above and ice-blue glaciers crack and topple into the water, forming icebergs. The delta occupies the eastern one-third of Chugach National Forest and is home to many of the state's big mammals, including grizzlies, black bears, otters, wolves, moose, mink and wolverines.

The ecosystem's greatest claim to fame is its role as the largest wetland on the Pacific coast of North America--a critical staging area for waterfowl and more than 16 million shorebirds. The delta serves as a refueling stop for virtually 100 percent of the West Coast populations of western sandpipers and dunlins on their way between summer breeding sites in the Arctic and wintering grounds in South America. The spring migration "is a spectacular sight," says biologist Dan Logan of the U.S. Forest Service. In early May the migrants stop over en masse (in autumn they tend to dribble through on their way south), making the delta come alive with birds resting or refueling on the tidal flats. Birders attending the Copper River Delta Shorebird Festival, held every May in Cordova since 1990, fill the town.

The delta is protected in a number of ways by federal and state regulations (see sidebar). All that paperwork has served the delta well in terms of reining in development by people, but it hasn't meant a thing to certain residents.

Take, for example, beavers, whose population has increased tenfold since the Good Friday quake. The busy creatures have dammed off what had been tidal sloughs, Grand says, "so now you have long, narrow freshwater ponds, ringed by shrubs and small trees." Such changes haven't hurt the commuters, the birds just passing through. But the restless earth and the ensuing vegetation changes are replacing dusky-friendly habitat with one tailor-made for the bird's predators. Dried-up sloughs provide access to wolves, bears and coyotes, which can creep up on duskies thanks to the denser cover. Gulls, jaegers, magpies, ravens--and eagles--thrive in the new habitat.

And although these species all are threats to duskies, what Grand and Anthony found with their cameras turned up one foe in particular. They got eight shots of predators in action last spring, and in every single case the predator was an American bald eagle. At least once, the eagle also killed the mother-to-be. "Out of every 10 dusky nests, about 3 produce goslings," calculates Grand. "We suspect that more than half the depredation is by eagles." And that brings wildlife experts like Grand face to face with what they are calling the Dusky Dilemma: Should the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies charged with protecting wildlife try to control the bald eagle--America's national icon, the very symbol of wilderness--for the sake of a relatively nondescript bird that few people have even heard of? Says Russ Oates, wildlife supervisor at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Anchorage office, "It's a terrible management dilemma."

The latest aerial surveys of dusky populations suggest the bird's numbers may be plunging like the North American Plate itself. From 1961 through 1970, reports William Eldridge of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Anchorage office, aerial surveys counted an average of 18,693 duskies. That increased somewhat in the 1970s, but then came a long, slow decline. "The biggest influence on the population has been the rate of nest depredation," says Grand. "In the 1950s and 1960s, nesting success was about 80 percent." If his results are an indication of predation throughout the delta, now it's less than half that--due, in large part, to eagles. As a result, the dusky is facing extinction as what the Fish and Wildlilfe Service's Oates calls "a biologically meaningful subspecies."

Here's what seems to be happening. Eagles are attracted to the Copper River Delta by huge runs of little schooling fish called eulachon (pronounced "hooligan"). But the eagles--he has counted 50 to 80 at a time waiting along riverbeds--generally show up in Anthony and Grand's study area before the fish. So they prey on dusky nests until the fish arrive. Then, when the fish are gone, the eagles switch to goslings: "We've put transmitters on goslings and have tracked them back to eagle nests," says Grand. "In 1997 and 1998, we attributed about one-quarter of gosling mortality to eagles." With goslings not growing up to reproduce, the breeding population of duskies is falling 2 to 4 percent a year, estimates Grand.

The options available to wildlife managers are dwindling. Since 1983 the Forest Service has built 861 artificial nesting islands, of six designs, in the delta. In the most popular model, floating fiberglass squares measuring about 5 feet on each side are anchored in some of the delta's larger ponds. "Nesting success is higher on the islands," says Grand. The biologists don't know why, except that mammalian predators can't reach the islands easily and eagles may not like the islands' small size and tendency to bob in the water.

Further restrictions on hunting aren't going to be popular. As it is, the dusky quota in Oregon and Washington is only 300 birds per season (November through early March), and "all of the quota is reserved for mistakes," says Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Robert Trost. In other words, hunters are not allowed to target duskies. To get a license a hunter has to pass a course that teaches the difficult task of distinguishing a dusky from other subspecies that winter in the Willamette and lower Columbia River valleys; the license of any hunter who nails a dusky by mistake is pulled for the season.

As it is, farmers greet the annual influx of 200,000 to 300,000 Canada geese with all the welcome they would a plague of locusts. The geese, arriving in clouds that darken the skies, descend on farms in the Willamette Valley, mowing the fields to bare earth. They gobble so much green browse, especially rye grass, that they cost individual farmers in excess of $100,000 in losses, reports Trost. If the dusky's numbers fall below 8,000, suggest some biologists, managers might have to consider making it illegal to hunt any Canada goose so not a single dusky is shot accidentally. At that, farmers along the Pacific Flyway might revolt.

So far, the government has been studying the situation. The Fish and Wildlife Service, through projects like Anthony and Grand's, is learning what preys on duskies and their young. If it turns out that one particular predator species is chowing down on most of the dusky eggs, the state or feds could propose more hunting. If, as the camera traps suggest, the chief predator is the bald eagle, most people involved want to be safely retired when the time comes to decide what to do. (Feared headline: "U.S. Biologists Propose Eagle Hunting to Save Pest Goose.")

The Forest Service is analyzing how the duskies differ from other Canada geese. On this front, the answer isn't one that dusky partisans hoped to hear: The dusky does not seem to differ genetically from the Vancouver Canada goose, a western Canada subspecies, says Eldridge. And that calls into question whether the dusky deserves protection as a distinct subspecies after all.

Meanwhile, the Copper River Delta isn't finished with its metamorphosis. "Pretty soon you'll have a spruce forest here," says the Forest Service's Logan. "And then, after maybe 100 years, the whole thing will reverse because the ground will start subsiding."

The quake of 1964 wasn't the first time the earth moved up here. Temblors have hit nine times in 5,600 years, calculates geologist George Plafker of the U.S. Geological Survey. Each rise allowed trees and brush to obliterate the duskies' habitat. Eventually--the whole cycle takes 700 to 800 years--the delta settled back to sea level, water percolated in and dusky habitat returned. Presumably, these yo-yo tectonics will all recur.

Will the dusky make it through the current cycle? "This is one of the truly interesting, and thorny, philosophical questions for twenty-first-century wildlife management," says Russ Oates. "How much effort should we expend to preserve a subspecies that, through no fault of mankind, is in trouble? My prediction is that, when the answer comes, the wildlife is going to lose."

Sharon Begley is Newsweek's science editor.

Will This Wilderness Stay Wild?

Any pieces of paper protect the Copper River Delta. One designates it a State Critical Wildlife Habitat Area; another makes it a Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network Site. A third, from Congress, is a unique mandate that its U.S. Forest Service lands, which comprise much of the delta, be managed primarily for the conservation of fish and wildlife and their habitat.

Still, development has long promised--or threatened, depending on your point of view--to come to the delta, jeopardizing what biologist Rick Steiner of the nonprofit Coastal Coalition calls "one of the most important coastal ecosystems left largely intact along Alaska's gulf coast."

And no wonder developers have long licked their collective chops: The area's natural resources are seemingly endless. Not only is the delta one of the most important shorebird habitats in the Western Hemisphere, it also holds hundreds of streams, many of which are used by spawning salmon and trout. Here too can be found very dense concentrations of nesting trumpeter swans and beavers. The region's coast holds a portion of the northernmost extension of the temperate rain forest, which already has been heavily logged in Southeast Alaska. In and near the delta are rich oil and coal deposits. The Copper River is named for deposits of the ore in nearby mountains, and near its headwaters a major copper mine operated from 1908 to 1938. A railroad delivered the ore to Cordova, now a fishing community, on the delta's far eastern edge.

The most recent plan to tap this bounty has involved a road that would cut across a portion of the delta (see "NWF Takes Action: Conserving the Delta"). That would allow Native-owned Chugach Alaska Corporation, which owns inholdings in Chugach National Forest, to access rain-forest timber and coal. Other projects on the drawing boards include a deep-water port north of Cordova, which would facilitate the shipping of timber and coal to Asia. There also is talk of an oil and gas pipeline across the delta and exploration for oil in the delta itself.

The Native interest in development grows out of the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), which created village and regional corporations. All were given money and land--and the incentive under their corporate structure to develop their resources. "What this is really about is the federal government keeping its promises," says Michael Brown, Chugach Alaska's president. "Under ANCSA, a promise was made and land was given, but without access the land is worthless." Although conservationists maintain that not enough is known about the environmental effects of the proposed road, Brown also argues it has been studied enough to be sure "it will have practically no effect on the land it goes through."

Not all shareholders agree, however. "Anytime a road is built into a pristine, wild place, everything changes," says Dune Lankard, an Eyak Native, Chugach Alaska shareholder and founder of the Eyak Rainforest Preservation Fund, a conservation group. He adds, "Management believes the land is worthless if they don't extract resources, but from the Eyak Indian perspective the land could never be considered worthless. The land provides subsistance, spirituality and sovereignty." Also, he is dubious that resource extraction will yield dividends to shareholders, especially given collapsing Asian markets. "We should look at conservation easement alternatives," he says, pointing out that such agreements, largely made possible by Exxon Valdez oil-spill restoration funds, have put other Native land in the region off-limits to development. "There's more money in preservation than in extraction."

Corporations may be leading the push for development, but they are not alone. The state of Alaska has long wanted to turn the old railroad grade along the Copper River into a road. Conservationists blocked the effort in two major struggles in the past 25 years, but the state now wants to make the rail bed into a trail. "Its intent is to provide access into the backcountry for mountain biking and hiking, and the concern is that the ever-present road advocates would turn it first into a four-wheel-drive trail and then into a true road," says Peter Van Tuyn, litigation director of the conservation group Trustees for Alaska. Serious planning would start this year, with construction in 2001. Conservationists are gearing up to fight those plans too.

History is on their side: In 1907 President Theodore Roosevelt faced down the J.P. Morgan-Guggenheim syndicate that built and owned the railroad. The syndicate planned to extend its railroad into interior Alaska, using coal from the nearby fields. But Roosevelt stymied the powerful businessmen, putting the region off-limits to development and creating Chugach National Forest. Conservationists hope the past is prologue.

NWF Takes Action: Conserving the Delta 

Last fall, Congress refused to allow construction of a 30-mile road along the eastern side of the Copper River Delta. The defeat for the Alaska congressional delegation, which introduced the proposal, came after NWF and a coalition of other environmental groups and Alaska Native organizations argued that the proposal bypassed normal environmental review.
Conservationists warn the road, which would enable extraction of rain-forest timber from land owned by Chugach Alaska Corporation, could harm 250 streams, many of which support spawning fish such as sockeye salmon.

"Cutting across the delta, the road would degrade thousands of acres of tidal marshes and other wetlands," warns Anthony Turrini, director of NWF's Alaska Office. NWF now hopes to convince the Native-owned corporation to sell a conservation easement rather than cut its trees.

To stay informed about efforts to protect the delta, e-mail copperriver@nwf.org, call 907-258-4808 or write NWF's Alaska Office, 750 West Second Avenue, Suite 200, Anchorage, Alaska 99501. You can also search the NWF website for the latest information about the Copper River Delta in Alaska. 

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