Conservation Planning for Steller’s Eiders and Spectacled Eiders

Principal Investigators Robert Suydam, Ph.D.
Collaborators USFWS, BLM, ABR, Inc.
Funding Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development, USFWS


The Spectacled (Somateria fischeri) and Steller’s (Polysticta stelleri) Eider Recovery Team developed Recovery Plans for these two species of eiders. Also, the team regularly reviews and recommends priorities for needed monitoring, research and management actions. Because both eiders occur on the North Slope, we represent the interests of the birds as well as the people of the North Slope.

The Alaska breeding population of Steller’s eiders was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in June 1997. Because Barrow is the only known regular nesting location for Steller’s Eiders in North America, a plan is needed to provide protection for Steller’s Eiders and allow for needed community development and expansion. We are working on a plan to identify important areas for eiders and for people and attempt to provide solutions for conserving eiders while allowing for community expansion and development. Some of the efforts to conserve Steller’s eiders include monitoring of nests with aerial and on-ground surveys, brood surveys for information on reproductive success, the installation of hardened trails through heavy-use areas near nesting sites, and public outreach and education. The U.S. fish and Wildlife Service has taken the lead in aerial (with assistance from the Bureau of Land Management) and on-ground surveys.

Aerial and Nest Surveys

The only known location where Steller’s Eiders still regularly nest in North America is near Barrow. Broad scale aerial surveys conducted by USFWS across the North Slope do not adequately monitor Steller’s Eiders because survey lines are spaced wide apart and the eiders appear to have a clumped nesting distribution. Therefore, near the known nesting areas surrounding Barrow, ground surveys are conducted. To monitor a larger area, intensive aerial surveys are conducted between Barrow and Atqasuk. Those surveys (flown by ABR) provide information on how extensively Steller’s Eiders nest outside of the immediate Barrow area. This information is important for evaluating recovery of the species as well as allowing for mitigation measures to be put in place for development in the Barrow area.

During the summer of 2008, 28 Steller’s eider nests were found near Barrow and the estimated population in the breeding area was 96 adults. Since these surveys were started in 1999, population estimates for this area ranged from 16 to 224. In 2008, the number of snowy owls observed was 123 which was a relatively high number likely due to the high abundance of brown lemmings. During the summer of 2009, no Steller’s eiders nests were found near Barrow and very few snowy owls were observed. The lack of brown lemmings probably contributed to these low numbers of owls and Steller’s Eiders. See the article at the bottom of this page by Quakenbush and Suydam (1999) for more information on the connection between Steller’s eiders and Snowy Owls.

Hardened Trail

Principal Investigators Robert Suydam, Ph.D. and Todd Sformo, Ph.D.
Collaborators UIC
Funding USFWS (Private Stewardship Program)


There are few roads on the North Slope of Alaska, including near villages. Many people travel on the tundra by snow machine or ATVs (4-wheelers). One of the primary reasons for traveling on the tundra during the summer is to hunt caribou. During the summer, the tundra can be damaged by this traffic and nesting birds can be disturbed. Rutted trails impact the vegetation and permafrost resulting in impacts to the environment including water quality. If ATVs travel closely to nesting birds, nests may be abandoned or eggs could be lost, To help mitigate impacts from ATV travel, we explored the possibility of installing hardened trail near Barrow to provide a trail that is easier to ride on, which should concentrate traffic and reduce impacts. Hardened trail had never before been installed in an area with permafrost. There was some worry the hardened trail might cause greater melting of permafrost during the summer. Hardened trail was installed near Hopson Middle School and Freshwater Lake, near Barrow. Pictures below show the hardened trail and resulting rehabilitation of damaged tundra habitat. The trail was easier to ride a 4-wheeler on than directly on the tundra, and the trail did not cause a greater melting of permafrost. We are currently seeking additional funds to expand the hardened trail in Barrow and other locations.

See the before and after pictures below for the Hardened Trail material placed behind Hopson Middle School along the snow fence and near Freshwater Lake.

Rutted trail behind Hopson Middle School along snow fence. Photo: Rita Acker

Hardened trail behind Hopson Middle School. Photo: Robert Suydam

Rita Acker standing next to rutted ATV trails near Freshwater Lake. Photo: Robert Suydam

Hardened trail near Freshwater Lake. Photo: Robert Suydam

Public Outreach and Education About Steller’s Eiders

Barrow Migratory Bird Task Force

The Barrow Migratory Bird Task Force is comprised of representatives from the Native Village of Barrow, the Iñupiat Community of the Arctic Slope, Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corporation, the North Slope Borough, and subsistence hunters. The Task Force has worked on efforts to conserve migratory birds and to continue the traditional hunting practices that are the foundation of Iñupiat culture. Members of the Task Force entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) in March of 2009 regarding the Migratory Bird Subsistence Harvest on the North Slope. This was done with a heavy heart, as the Iñupiat have successfully regulated their own hunt for millennia.

With the cooperation of local hunters, the Task Force generated awareness regarding the Steller’s eiders biological status and laws affecting the hunt. As a result of this effort, there were no Steller’s eiders mortalities during the 2009 spring/summer subsistence season. There were only four FWS law enforcement citations issued, relating to the possession of lead shot – all of which took place at the beginning of the season. The Task Force and local hunters will continue to conserve the Steller’s eiders as well as the traditional subsistence hunt. We are currently working on the development of the 2010 MOU with the USFWS.

The ultimate goal of the Task Force is to build a relationship of trust with the USFWS so that control of the traditional hunt may be returned to the Iñupiat. The Task Force is responsible for communicating to the residents of the North Slope the conservation needs for Steller’s and spectacled eiders, including the current status of the eiders and the hunting regulations regarding migratory birds. Outreach efforts provide a great deal of information to hunters, especially young ones, about species identification and the need to avoid shooting Steller’s and spectacled eiders. The information is conveyed through public service announcements via radio messages and call-in shows on KBRW, TV station ads, posters, flyers, hunter-to-hunter meetings, and word of mouth. For more information on the Task Force, please contact Taqulik Hepa at NSB-DWM.

Migratory Bird Fair

The NSB-DWM, along with the Barrow Migratory Bird Task Force, helped to kick off the subsistence hunting season with a Migratory Bird Fair held in Barrow in April 2010. Geoff Carroll of the ADF&G sold state licenses and state duck stamps, and the USFWS had federal duck stamps available and explained federal hunting regulations. NSB-DWM and the USFWS provided information on geese and eiders. The NSB-DWM provided information eiders, geese and yellow-billed loons. Games and activities were available for kids of all ages, including puzzles, bird mobiles, and bird button and luggage tag making. The NSB-DWM provided duck and goose soup for all to enjoy! Door prizes were awarded to folks attending, including a shotgun donated by Ducks Unlimited.

The 2nd Annual Migratory Bird Fair was held in Barrow in March of 2011 at Hopson Middle School. Attendance was great with more soup, Eskimo donuts, and more door prizes! The Eider Journey students, Alaina Bankston, Paige Bowen, and Stephanie Nelson, made a presentation about their experience helping the USFWS biologists survey Steller’s eiders near Barrow during the summer of 2010. See the Eider Journey below for more information on that program.

The 3rd Annual Barrow Migratory Bird Fair was held on April 3rd, 2012 and about 185 people attended. Eider Journey students, Johnathan Nelson, Miriam Diaz, Stephanie Nelson, and Elmer Thompson, Jr., gave a presentation on their summer work with USFWS on Steller’s Eiders. Thanks to AC, AEWC, ACTP, Annie Patterson, City of Barrow, Ducks Unlimited, Ilisagvik College, NAPA, NSB Mayor’s Office, NSB Health Dept., Pepe’s, Sarah Martinsen, and Spenard’s for their door prize donations. Thanks to Molly Pederson, Billy Adams, Jason Herreman, Brian Person and Leslie Pierce for making duck or goose soup and to Jaime Patkotak and Jane Patkotak for making doughnuts.

Hunter Education

There are four species of eiders that migrate to the North Slope: common, king, spectacled and Steller’s eiders. Common and king eiders are hunted as they fly north along the ice edge in the spring, and then again along the coast in the fall as they migrate south. Steller’s and spectacled eiders are protected from hunting due to their low population numbers on the North Slope. Please take care to not hunt Steller’s and spectacled eiders.

Traditionally, Steller’s eiders were not a targeted species for subsistence. Elders in Barrow say that when they were growing up, their parents told them not to hunt Steller’s eiders. Elders also tell us that there were never very many of these eiders seen around Barrow. Local hunters have passed this knowledge on to their children.

After the listing of Steller’s and spectacled eiders as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1997, it became illegal to hunt them in order to help conserve their population numbers. Below you will find an Eider Identification poster as well as websites for more information on hunting regulations on the North Slope.

For information on all hunting regulations for the North Slope, see the following:

Steel Shot

It is illegal to use lead shot on the North Slope for hunting migratory birds. Lead is an environmental contaminant and the shot can be eaten by birds resulting in lead poisoning. Many hunters had only used lead shot in the past and steel shoots much differently than lead. Thus, there was a need to help hunters understand the differences between lead and steel shot. The NSB, USFWS and Alaska Department of Fish and Game organized steel shot clinics to provide this information. Steel shot and hunter education clinics have been held in Barrow and will be held in Point Hope, Point Lay, and Wainwright in the future. See below for more information on lead shot and safe alternatives.

Contact the NSB-DWM for exchanging your lead shot for steel shot!

Eider Journey

The US Fish and Wildlife Service developed an education program called Eider Journey with the assistance of the NSB and NSB School District. High School students assist with ground surveys in the Barrow area during the summer and then travel to Cold Bay in the fall to assist with a banding program at Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. Eider Journey provides young adults from the North Slope a better understanding about the varied habitats and locations of Steller’s Eiders.

North Slope Borough high school students interested in participating in the Eider Journey should contact Neesha Stellrecht. A new group of students are selected every spring for the upcoming summer season. Neesha is a biologist who works for the USFWS and who coordinates this program as well as other outreach programs on the North Slope. Here is her contact information:

Neesha Stellrecht
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
101 12th Avenue, Room 110
Fairbanks, Alaska 99701
Phone Number: (907) 456-0297
Fax Number: (907) 456-0208

For more information about this project, see the following from the ARCUS Arctic Alive webpage. You will find a downloadable document providing information on the natural history of Steller’s Eiders as well as describing the research in which students from the North Slope are involved.

More on Steller’s and Spectacled Eiders


Banner photo credit: Josh Bacon

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