Lands in Focus: Migratory Bird Health

Presented by Calista Land & Natural Resources Department

Storyknife, Mar/Apr 2023 edition

Greater White-Fronted geese in the Y-K Delta, courtesy USFWS/Tim Bowman.

Millions of waterfowl migrate to the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta every year to feed and raise their young. Many of these geese and ducks are highly valued by subsistence and sport hunters and they are monitored, much like salmon, to track the health of their populations.

So how are they doing?

“In general, they are doing pretty well,” says U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Supervisory Wildlife Biologist Julian Fischer, who manages the agency’s waterfowl program in Alaska.

This is a big contrast to the early 1980s when geese populations in the Y-K plummeted. Tribal organizations and wildlife agencies successfully worked together on a plan to rebuild them. This included voluntary hunting restrictions until populations rebounded.


What about the Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza outbreaks that began last year and reached Alaska?

While the outbreak continues in 2023, fortunately it has not caused severe die-offs in Alaska wild bird populations like it has in domesticated poultry.

Individual wild birds throughout Alaska—including the Y-K Delta—died from avian influenza in 2022, but not in numbers that impacted overall populations. Some observers reported wild birds that show signs of sickness and then seem to “shake it off,” but it is also possible that remote locations may have masked the extent of bird deaths, Fischer says.

Though the risk of transfer is low, avian flu can be passed to humans, so hunters are advised to wear gloves, wash hands, and disinfect knives and equipment used for cleaning. Cooking meat and eggs to an internal temperature of 160 degrees F kills bacteria and viruses.


There is a concerning trend for one goose species in the Y-K Delta—Pacific black brant—without an easy solution.

On the Y-K Delta, black brant nest in five major colonies which are declining in size while black brant colonies located on the North Slope are expanding, according to Fischer.

The apparent cause of these population shifts is a sedge called Carex subspathacea, which is the preferred food for nesting black brant. The amount of this grass-like plant has decreased on the Y-K Delta coast, but increased on the North Slope, with a corresponding impact on the size and survival rate of goslings.

Fisher explains, “There are going to be changes in the future. Some species will adapt to new conditions and others with more specialized habitat requirements won’t.”


To hear more discussion about bird health issues on the Y-K Delta, you can listen to an interview with Fischer and fellow U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Rob Kaley on the Feb. 13 episode of Coffee at KYUK.


Contamination from lead shotgun shells is deadly for wild birds, but lead shot is still sold in the Y-K Region because it is not illegal to sell or possess it. Here are some important facts:

– The use of lead shot for waterfowl hunting has been prohibited since the 1990s.
– The Native Village of Hooper Bay submitted a proposal in 2007 to ban the use of lead shot for all hunting in the Y-K Delta. The Alaska Board of Game approved the ban.
– However, boxes of lead shot do not say “lead” on them, so it is easy to purchase lead ammunition unknowingly.
– Purchases boxes of ammunition that are labeled “non-toxic.” Examples include steel, bismuth or tungsten.

The Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge in Bethel has an exchange program where hunters can receive non-toxic shot in exchange for lead shot. If interested, please contact Aaron Moses at 907-543-1021.