By Hilary Corrigan
Triplicate staff writer
Through the zoom lens of a scope mounted on the passenger door of a Bronco, Frank Kemp watched the Aleutian Canada geese stoop and peck at the green grass off Lower Lake Road.
In his hand, Kemp clicked a counter and on a clipboard, recorded the location and number of the birds.
"Good workout for the retina," Kemp, a scientific aid with the California Department of Fish and Game, said of the day-long birdwatching effort.
For three consecutive days in early March and another three mid-month, scientists simultaneously follow the birds from field to field, counting them in an annual survey meant to gauge their populations. They detail the color and codes of neck collars on some of the banded birds to avoid counting the same ones twice.
Not so much a wild goose chase as a controlled, methodical one.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates a total of more than 100,000. Most of the geese stop in Del Norte County on their way to summer at the Aleutian Islands off Alaska, a 2,000-mile journey fueled by local grasses.
"Heard a whole big slug of 'em showed up here yesterday," Kemp said as he made his way north, pasture by pasture. "They're loading up for the big trip."
Bird watchers couldn't always see the geese here. In the early 1970s, the goose population reached about 700, prompting an listing on the federal Endangered Species Act in 1973.
The bird's name came off the list in 2001, after recovery efforts bolstered the species. Those included killing foxes that fur traders had introduced to the Alaskan coast, where they preyed on the breeding geese and their eggs, and setting aside land in California where the geese could graze in winter.
Now, bird Websites tout the comeback story. For the past eight years, the Annual Aleutian Goose Festival has celebrated the animal.
Birder Alan Barron has watched the number of geese climb since his arrival in Del Norte County in the early 1980s, when the population totaled in the low thousands.
"It's been quite impressive. I've never seen anything like it," Barron said of the rebound. "There's nothing else to call it except a success story."
Such a success, in fact, that hunting seasons have lengthened each year to kill more of the geese. This year, a special two-week hunt, from February to March, targeted them on private lands.
"It has helped shift geese from private lands onto public lands," said Dave Lancaster, a wildlife biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game. "That was the main purpose."
Ranchers and state officials want to repeat that hunt next year.
"The geese are putting a lot of pressure on us and eating a lot of our feed," said Blake Alexandre, owner of Alexandre Dairy.
Alexandre estimates a loss of up to $1,000 each day as the birds eat pasture grasses on the approximately 2,800 acres that he farms in Del Norte County. That's grass that his cows graze on or that workers harvest to store as feed.
Alexandre uses small pickups and all-terrain vehicles to scare the geese, an effort that costs time and money.
"We have three to four full-time employees chasing geese right now and it's still questionable if that's effective or not," he said, noting how the birds learn noises and methods. "Everything works, for a short time."
Alexandre chairs the Aleutian Goose Working Group, a mix of ranchers, government officials and conservationists that formed after the bird's delisting. The group will likely support the special hunt again next year, after the pilot program attracted more than 100 hunters from throughout California to hunt on Alexandre's ranch.
"We just aren't sure it's enough," Alexandre said of the effort.
The problem near his Smith River ranch is the same facing about 20 other farmers in Del Norte County, along with others near the Eel River in Humboldt County and in parts of southern Oregon.
"Just imagine 50,000 of these hungry birds set up shop on your ranch in the springtime, which is a crucial time," Kemp said. "Some uninvited guests at the buffet."
Federal guidelines have set a population goal of 60,000 for the geese.
"I'd like to see the current population enforced at 60,000 and managed at 60,000," Alexandre said.
The working group also wants to see better irrigation and fertilization on public lands for the grazing geese that prefer the well-maintained private pastures.
"So there's more green grass on that side of the fence," Alexandre said.
The state and working group manage about 600 acres of state lands in Del Norte County for the geese, leasing those sections for cattle grazing, as well.
"They run out of feed and volume," Alexandre said of the geese.
The group will discuss the hunt, land improvement and other issues at a monthly meeting on March 28. And Alexandre usually speaks at the festival, to give the farmers' views.
"The goose festival's been a good forum," Alexandre said. "So that the public understands the cost to farmers."
Del Norte County lacks the stretches of public fields that the birds can visit while they winter in the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys, said Paul Springer, a retired wildlife research biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and teacher at Humboldt State University who has worked to recover the species.
Other possible alternatives could pay ranchers to share land with visiting geese.
"In a sense, I say, we oversucceeded," Springer said of the Aleutian goose's comeback. "We've got a new set of problems now. They're no longer endangered, but we've got them competing with the ranchers."
Meet the Aleutian Canada Goose
The Aleutian Canada Goose neared extinction in the 1970s and now boasts a population of more than 100,000. The bird also boasts the following characteristics:
Measures about the size of a mallard, or half the size of Canada geese
Sounds a high-pitched squeak rather than the Canada goose's deeper honk
Has a short forehead, short bill and a ring of white at the base of neck
Population decline attributed to fur farmers who imported the Arctic fox to its breeding grounds off of the Alaska coast in the early 1900s
Source: Alaska Department of Fish and Game Wildlife Conservation