ANCHORAGE - Eighty-year-old Buck Delkettie leans over and carefully plucks the still-warm white goose eggs from the nest lined in gray goose down.
"One, two, three, four, five," he counts as he carefully places the large eggs on a bed of moss in the bottom of his plastic bucket.
He ignores the hissing, honking and flapping of wings from two Canada geese he's run off the nest.
"Sorry Momma," the Athabaskan elder says as the female goose honks at him. "She's mad. 'You're taking my babies."'
Delkettie joined a group of about 25 people last week who participated in the annual hunt for Canada goose eggs. The hunt is part of a program to reduce the goose population in Anchorage to 2,000 by the end of 2001. Wildlife officials say the program is right on target.
Back in the mid-1990s, the Municipality of Anchorage was home to more than 5,000 geese. Populations were doubling every five years, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Anchorage's wake-up call about its exploding goose population came in 1995 when geese were sucked into the engines of an AWACS plane at Elmendorf Air Force Base. It crashed, killing 24 people.
The base initiated a goose reduction program. One year after the accident, the base dispersed 10,145 geese. That number had dropped to 1,517 last year.
In the 1970s there were just a few hundred geese in Anchorage, so few that in the 1980s someone thought it would be a good idea to introduce about 100 geese into a lake at Fort Richardson, said Fish and Wildlife biologist Karen Laing.
"People didn't realize that geese were going to be a problem until the last 20 years all over the country," she said.
The Canada goose population in Anchorage grew with its human population. Homes were built around artificial lakes and homeowners planted lush lawns of fertilized Kentucky blue grass that went down to the water's edge. They kept their lawns neatly mowed - short just like geese like it so they can keep a lookout for predators.
"That just happens to be perfect habitat for geese to raise young," Laing said.
The geese became fat and strong on fertilized grass. More of their young survived. They spent winters in Oregon feeding on grass seed and sod grown for the booming golf course industry, Laing said.
Ridding geese from the municipality's four airports was the biggest concern. The airports spend about $400,000 a year to establish goose-free zones. Goose dispersal measures include a cutout of a fox or coyote moved around airport properties, propane cannons, 12-guage cracker shells, 15mm whistlers and 15mm bangers. Some geese are shot. Goslings are moved to refuges. Grass is kept long. Experiments are underway to find grasses geese don't like.
Last year about 4,000 geese were removed from Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport property, near the bog where this year's goose hunt was held.
"It is now a manageable problem," said airport operations manager Corky Caldwell.
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act prohibits the collecting of wild bird eggs. But special permits allow the Elders Program of the Southcentral Foundation to donate the eggs to Alaska Natives so they can eat them, as their ancestors once did.
"It tastes like a real egg," said 62-year-old Yup'ik Eskimo Barb Shetter, who carried two eggs in her bucket. "When you eat wild eggs and then eat chicken eggs, they're tasteless."
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