Researchers say snowy owl population is thriving

Posted: Sunday, September 10, 2006

ANCHORAGE - Snowy owls are having their most productive summer in at least 15 years and researchers say their vigor is tied to a boom in the population of lemmings.

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The showy birds breed on Alaska's North Slope, and if they can find food, some stay for the long, frigid winter.

These days they're easy to spot in Barrow, the nation's northernmost community, spreading long wings as they soar among weather-stripped homes or dotting sandy banks to avoid Arctic wind.

An oversized carving of the snowy owl, its Halloween-yellow eyes looking more friendly than predatory, greets visitors from the welcome sign near the Barrow airport.

Even the Inupiaq name for Barrow, population 4,200, honors the owl. Ukpiagvik means "The place where we hunt snowy owls."

That practice ended years ago, said Charles Brower. Elders used to eat them in leaner times, supplementing caribou and whale, he said.

"I heard they were good eating," he said.

But tastes changed, along with needs, after Yankee whalers introduced canned goods at the turn of the last century and modern food such as frozen chicken began arriving on planes, he said.

Poaching, in which the animals are shot and left to die on the tundra, has also fallen, said Denver Holt, who has studied the birds since 1992.

Five were killed that way a few years ago, he said. But in 2004, the local tribal government unanimously passed an ordinance prohibiting people from handling owls, and therefore killing them, on land owned by the village corporation.

"It's pretty sad to see dead owls out in the field," said Tommy Olemaun, executive director of the Native Village of Barrow.

For every dead adult owl, as many as seven chicks die too, he said.

Since the law was passed, researchers have found only one poached owl a year, Holt said.

But the key reason for the snowy owl explosion is that lemmings, famous for their boom-bust cycles, are thriving, said Holt, who in 1988 founded the nonprofit Owl Research Institute in Montana.

Scientists can't explain the lemming explosion, he said. They do know that when the rodents are scarce, snowy owls don't do as well.

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