What a day with the Atlantic Brant teaches about Alaska’s Izembek

Atlantic Brants in the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Elisabeth Condon.

I spent last weekend birding the coastline of New Jersey. My partner in crime was Seth Cutright, a hawk counter at Sandy Hook Bird Observatory, just across the pond from New York City. After a hectic morning in which the air was alive with American kestrels and Northern harriers, the slowness of the afternoon prompted Seth’s generous supervisor to give him the rest of the day off.

Seth and I did not waste a minute — off to Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge (a.k.a. Brigantine, or simply Brig, to locals) we went.

Almost as soon as we arrived at Brig, we saw large flocks of Brant — small geese that are just one species of migratory birds who use this East Coast refuge as a stopping point during their long annual migration.

Observing these long distance wanderers from behind a pair of high powered binoculars, I found myself asking where these birds came from. There are four “superhighways”, or flyways, for bird migration in North America. The Brant that Seth and I observed at Brigantine are on the Atlantic Flyway.

The Brant on the Pacific coast are the same species as those on the Atlantic, but they are darker, follow different migration routes and have different breeding grounds. Pacific Black Brant follow the Pacific Flyway. The favorite food of all Brant is eelgrass.

The largest eelgrass bed in North America can be found in the heart of Izembek National Wildlife Refuge on the Alaskan Peninsula. Every year virtually the entire population of Pacific Black Brant visits Izembek.

Usually the greatest numbers of Brant are found on the north side of the Izembek isthmus at Izembek Lagoon, but in the coldest months, when the Bering Sea side freezes over, Brant and other species move south to Kinzarof Lagoon on the Pacific side of the isthmus. Both lagoons are of vital importance to Pacific Brant, as well as Steller’s Eiders (a threatened species) and various other migratory waterfowl and shorebird species. This part of the refuge is so important that it is protected as Wilderness, and has been recognized for its importance by international treaties.

As I observed the large flocks of Brant at Brigantine, thoughts of Izembek were buzzing through my head. The tiny community of King Cove (pop. approximately 800), on the eastern side of the isthmus, has been pushing for a road to be built through the sensitive wetland habitat to Cold Bay, a town on the other side of Izembek.

The road’s proponents say it is needed for medical evacuations of King Cove residents to the all-weather airport at Cold Bay. However, this issue of medical evacuation was resolved effectively when the King Cove community received $37.5 million from Congress in 1998 to improve their medical facility and purchase a state-of-the-art hovercraft.

This baby can go over 10 foot swells, land and ice. It has already completed over 30 successful evacuations. The hovercraft takes as little as 20 minutes to cross to Cold Bay carrying a fully staffed ambulance, and can operate under almost any weather conditions. Driving the proposed road would take 1 hour 50 minutes in favorable weather conditions. In winter’s snow and ice, the road would likely become completely impassable.

Although the conservation community never wanted the proposed road to become a reality, Congress included an Izembek road bill in an otherwise first-rate package of public lands legislation, which President Obama recently signed into law. Passage of the bill starts a process that could allow the road; now, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar must determine whether this road is in the public interest in order for the project to proceed.

As a biologist I know that the best habitat for Brant is one that is undisturbed by humans. The entire population of Pacific Black Brant depends on Izembek’s eelgrass resource to build up their fat reserves for an incredible 60- to 95-hour non-stop flight to wintering grounds in British Columbia, the United States and Mexico. During this time Brant are especially sensitive to human disturbance, and a road through the critical habitat at the narrow Izembek isthmus would put unnecessary stress on the Pacific Black Brant population. Even without the threat of a road, Alaska Native villages that rely on brant for their subsistence have been concerned about declines in Pacific Black Brant caused by habitat stresses. They see the Izembek road as a threat from which the Pacific Flyway Brant population might never recover.

Recent research has shown that as global temperatures rise, Pacific Black Brant populations are going to become more and more dependent on their Arctic habitat. We must insulate Brant from non-climate related factors, and that means protecting their fragile habitat from unnecessary disruption.

Birds know nothing of state lines or international borders whether they are in the Pacific, Atlantic or any other flyway. They follow ancient routes over land and sea, guided by faith and instinct. We have a duty to protect migratory waterfowl at key stopover sites. Places like Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey and Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska are maintained especially for the benefit of migratory birds and other wildlife. The Izembek refuge was established to protect not only the Pacific Black Brant, but the other migratory and nesting birds and wildlife that rely on its unique habitat and resources. If any step of the migratory route is compromised, the entire species population suffers. And so do we.

These thoughts rose and receded in my head like the tide. Seth and I continued the slow progression through Brigantine, stopping often to observe Osprey, shorebirds, a Peregrine Falcon taking its prey, and the Brant. All visitors from the north and south.

At The Wilderness Society we are doing what we can to protect the birds and other animals that need Izembek. We hope that Secretary Salazar will realize that damage to Izembek would constitute a major loss for the American public.

photo: Atlantic Brants in the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Elisabeth Condon.