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Steller's Eider May Nest Again on the Delta
Photo Credit: Laura Whitehouse, USFWS
The last Steller's eider (Polysticta stelleri) nest was observed on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta (Y-K Delta) in 2005; prior to that observation, only a handful of nests were found since 1976. Early naturalists considered the Steller's eider a common nester in the Y-K Delta area during the first half of the 20th Century.
This rare sea duck is the smallest of the four eider species. Three Steller's eider breeding populations are recognized: two in Arctic Russia and one in Alaska. In 1997, the Alaska-breeding population was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act due to the contraction of the species breeding range in Alaska.
Steller's eiders historically nested in western and northern Alaska. In addition to the Y-K Delta, they were recorded nesting on St. Lawrence Island, the Seward and Alaska Peninsulas and the Aleutian Islands. The species' current breeding range is confined to the Arctic Coastal Plain between Wainwright and Prudhoe Bay, with a notable concentration of 19 nests near Barrow.
The Steller's Eider Recovery Team has considered reintroducing the Steller's eider to the Y-K Delta for many years. This rural area in southwestern Alaska and includes the huge Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge. It is home to the Alaska Native Yup'ik people, who traditionally hunt waterfowl for cultural and nutritional reasons.
In 2005, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service partnered with the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward, Alaska, to evaluate establishment of a captive Steller's eider flock. The SeaLife Center successfully bred Steller's eiders in captivity in 2007, and now houses 10 breeding pairs. The stage has been set for reintroduction of Steller's eiders to the Y-K Delta.
Prior to an estimated first release date in 2016, much still needs to be done, including outreach to local communities, drafting an Environmental Assessment with project objectives and alternatives, increasing capacity at the captive breeding facility, and continued research to refine field methods and propagation techniques.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has recently chosen this bird as a high priority species in Alaska to focus on in the next year as it implements Strategic Habitat Conservation, an adaptive management framework adopted as the Service's landscape conservation business model in 2006. The Service uses the SHC framework to inform decisions about where and how to deliver conservation efficiently with partners to achieve measurable outcomes.
Biologists hope that someday residents of the Y-K Delta will again observe nesting Steller's eiders, and that eventually this species will be as commonly seen on the Y-K Delta as it once was.
Cathy Rezabeck, the outreach coordinator for the Service's Alaska Region, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 907-786-3351.
Editor's note: On June 21, 2013, researchers discovered an active Steller's eider nest on the central coast of the Y-K Delta while conducting other research. This is the first nest observed in western Alaska since 2005.
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