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Sea ice decline and permafrost thaw create goose habitat in Arctic Alaska

Posted: January 24, 2014 - 1:00am

ANCHORAGE — Warming temperatures are creating high quality habitats for black brant geese along the Arctic coast of Alaska, according to scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey.

Thousands of black brant geese migrate to the Arctic Coastal Plain of Alaska each summer to undergo their wing molt. They’re flightless for those three weeks, and need access to open water areas where they can escape from predators. They also need access to high-energy food.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began noticing a shift in black brant geese population around Teshekpuk Lake, southeast of Barrow, in the 1970s. The geese have been moving away from large inland lakes and into coastal salt marshes. Now, said Paul Flint, a research wildlife biologist with the USGS, they have found the geese aren’t changing locations because of the loss of habitat, but because of the creation of new habitat.

Surveys conducted in new coastal molting habitats documented a 50 percent increase in the population size of molting black brant along the Arctic Coast. The authors of the study also conclude that continued reductions in sea ice and associated permafrost melting may continue to alter coastal areas toward creating more salt marshes and thus facilitate further changes in goose distributions.

“The bottom line is that there is now an abundance of high quality goose forage along the coast, therefore, we expect this process to continue and for populations of black brant and other goose species to increase,” Flint said.

Future investigations planned by the USGS will determine if the sea ice and permafrost driven changes are resulting in an overall increase in the high quality coastal vegetation used by geese or if habitat is simultaneously being lost to coastal erosion.

“This kind of information has been very helpful in determining areas that may need special considerations when planning for potential industrial development on the North Slope,” Debbie Nigro, a wildlife biologist with the Bureau of Land Management in Fairbanks, said.

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