Tribal Wildlife Grant Provides Data, and Promotes Cooperation
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife I Service's Alaska Region used a Tribal Wildlife Grant to increase not only understanding of the ringed seal—one traveled 5,493 miles in 277 days—but also cooperation and understanding among the biologists who collect data on these marine mammals and the subsistence community that relies upon the seals for sustenance and cultural continuity.
In 2007, the Native Village of Kotzebue received a grant to capture ring seals and fit them with satellite tags that would record their movements, diving habits and haul-out behavior, and transmit the data to NOAA satellites.
From 2004 to 2006 a similar project resulted in the tagging of 20 bearded seals, and 10 Kotzebue residents helped capture and tag the animals. They also caught a number of ringed seals, a key ice-dependent species, giving the village the idea to propose and develop a similar project aimed at increasing understanding of these pinnipeds. Up to that time, very little was known about ringed seal movements, dive behavior or habitat use; even though the species is of great importance to subsistence hunters and a major prey source for threatened polar bears.
Between 2007 and 2009, the grant-funded study resulted in the capture and tagging of 37 ringed seals and and 11 bearded seals. In short, it was a great success. The longest-lived of the tags continued transmitting for 297 days, and the research recorded (among other information) a seal diving to a depth of 984 feet. The study also greatly increased understanding of the seasonal movements, habitat use and foraging behavior of ringed seals in Alaska.
Participant Kathy Frost of Kotzebue, summed it up, saying: "This project was so successful because local residents and biologists combined their skills and ingenuity and worked as a team." Frost added that the team exceeded expectations and tagged more seals than the 20 originally proposed because of the Tribal Wildlife Grant Program's flexibility in providing no-cost extensions for additional field work and analyses. Additional funding was provided by the Native Village of Kotzebue, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Conoco-Phillips, Shell Exploration and Production Company, and the National Marine Fisheries Service's Alaska Region.
Perhaps most significant of all was the spirit of cooperation that developed over the course of the project. All members of the research team were trained in capturing seals, tagging them, collecting blood samples and taking measurements. Because of this, local participants could work when no biologists were on site, and more than half of the seals were caught and tagged when this was the case. As a result, the wildlife professionals came away from the experience with an increased understanding of and respect for the knowledge and abilities of local people, and resource users developed a greater trust in the information that guides the management decisions that affect their lives.