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The Pacific Black Brant Enigma: Part 1

A close look at the pacific population of this mysterious saltwater goose.

The Pacific Black Brant Enigma: Part 1

Pacific black brant are an icon and a bird of intrigue for both waterfowl hunters and biologists. (Photo By: David Stimac)

My brant obsession took root as a boy, when I hunted them along the coast in my home state of Oregon. Then, in 1990, I became the sole high school teacher in Point Lay, Alaska, a tiny Inupiat village, population 100, situated on the remote Arctic coast. My formal education in the sciences, along with a lifetime of hunting experience and a thirst to live in this part of the world, took me there.

Every year I lived in Point Lay, the end of August marked the start of fall. This was when the brant migration commenced, a spectacle to behold. Every day, all day, for a week straight, brant migrated down the coastline of Point Lay. No one really knew where all the brant came from that migrated down Kasegaluk Lagoon, past my home. Today, it’s still not certain if any of the brant in this part of Alaska are coming from Russia, though we know some are from Alaska’s North Slope, and many from Canada.


Keeping an Eye on the Pacific Black Brant

Pacific black brant are an icon, a bird of mystery and intrigue for hunters and biologists. “1924 marked the first trip to the Yukon-Kuskokwim (Y-K) Delta where brant colonies were initially documented and studied,” shares Jim Sedinger, Professor Emeritus at the University of Nevada Reno, PhD, who has been studying waterfowl on the Y-K Delta since 1977. “In the 1930s, Pacific black brant populations were estimated to be around 270,000 birds, and today that number is about 170,000.”

But what Sedinger reveals about current brant populations is interesting. “We can account for 70,000 brant, but we’re missing 100,000 brant somewhere due to variables we don’t understand. Mid-winter aerial counts stopped in Mexico about a decade ago, so now we’re relegated to ground counts, which aren’t as accurate.”

Because brant are so spread-out during migrations, and the fact they nest in remote regions of Russia, Canada and the U.S., getting accurate counts is difficult. “Last year some 70,000 brant over-wintered on Izembek Lagoon,” notes Sedinger. “Only a few thousand birds wintered there 20-plus years ago, and this brings up some concerns. First, eel grass doesn’t grow in winter, so are these birds now depleting a valuable food supply? And second, bird harvest rates have gone from 1% to 4% in recent years.”

flock of pacific black brant in alaska
Pacific black brant populations are decline as harvest rates are increasing. (Photo By: Scott Haugen)

Living with the Pacific Black Brant

Chris Nicolai, Waterfowl Scientist at Delta Waterfowl, completed both his Master’s and PhD on Pacific black brant. He’s spent countless hours in the field banding and studying brant and has hunted them from Alaska to Mexico. “To tell you the truth, I’m concerned about native village harvests on these brant because those estimated annual harvest rates are between 10,000-30,000. To put it in perspective, sport hunters only take about 5,300 brant a year; 2,000 in Mexico, 1,500 in Cold Bay, 1,000 in California, 500 in Oregon, 300 in Washington.”

When my wife and I lived in Point Lay in the early 1990s, there was no grocery store. We did nine months’ worth of grocery shopping in Anchorage and had it flown to our home in Point Lay. Because we couldn’t ship fresh meat, the meat we lived on was what I hunted for, primarily caribou and other big game, along with some upland birds, waterfowl and fish.

Today, things are different. Populations in remote Alaskan villages are growing at a record rate, however, the ratio of indigenous peoples is declining while subsistence hunting is being done by a growing number of non-indigenous residents. Stores are present in most remote villages now, and online shopping and shipping is easy throughout much of the state. If over-harvest of brant is really a concern, state and federal agencies need to take a closer look at who, exactly, is harvesting the large number of brant in rural Alaska through subsistence practices, and adjust subsistence regulations, rather than pin it on sport hunters.

Hunting the Pacific Black Brant

“This is the third season hunters have been allowed only two brant in Alaska,” shares noted guide, Jeff Wasley, owner of Four Flyways Outfitters in Cold Bay, Alaska. The limit used to be three. Wasley is the best waterfowl hunter I’ve met. He’s extremely passionate about preserving brant. Wasley has a biology degree and spent four years working as a waterfowl biologist for the USGS. He’s been a full-time waterfowl guide since 2008 and, like many of us, grew up waterfowl hunting.

“Some people are concerned about the number of brant wintering here, but I’ve spent several winters living in Cold Bay and closely watch brant all winter long on Izembek Lagoon,” Wasley shares. “Last November was the coldest I’ve ever seen it here. Izembek Lagoon froze over and all the brant left. Then, as the ice began to melt, the brant returned, and they just kept coming. I watched flock after flock of brant landing atop three-feet thick chunks of overturned ice in the lagoon, eating the lush, green eel grass that was frozen to the bottom. By January, 70,000 brant were here.” When the brant temporarily left Izembek Lagoon in November, they were obviously getting eel grass somewhere, likely amid the islands to the south.

Wasley continues with more valuable hunter-based observations. “After the first week of October, we barely get banded brant anymore, which proves a lot of the brant wintering here are coming from places besides the Y-K Delta. All geese adapt quickly to change, and it’s silly to think brant are any different.”

hunting pacific black brant in alaska
A Pacific black brant is a bucket list bird for many waterfowl hunters. (Photo By: Scott Haugen)

Where Did the Brant Go?

Paul Flint, 30 years a research biologist with the USGS, also completed his PhD on brant in the Y-K Delta, and he agrees with Sedinger that there are at least 100,000 brant missing from recent surveys. “There may be more than that, but we know they’re not in Alaska.”

What each biologist agrees on is that human error could be a big factor in counting brant. The mid-winter index is what brant populations are largely based on. Different crews are counting different states and Mexico, creating space for human error. “One thing we do know, the larger the flock of birds being counted, the lower the count will be,” notes Flint. “We now have a photo-based survey method that allows us to fly above brant at a height that doesn’t spook them, take pictures of birds on the water, then count each one.” While data was still being analyzed from recent counts, Flint assured me they’re counting more brant now, not missing as many as with prior counting methods.

Predation and natural mortality are other factors impacting brant populations. “This past summer we banded 25 percent of the brant we usually do on the Y-K Delta,” Sedinger continues. “The number of brant simply didn’t show up, and we won’t know until next year if Avian Influenza could be partially to blame. Arctic foxes were hitting the nests hard this summer, too, and wiped out close to 50% of the nests on our study grounds.”

So, why can’t problem foxes simply be killed? The answer is tangled, partly because removing predators has gotten a bad rap in recent years, partly because funding for the USFWS has been short, and partly because different refuge managers have different visions. Toss in the fact brant numbers are increasing on the North Slope, and the question arises as to why invest time and money protecting a brant population that’s on the decline in one known location, the Y-K Delta. In 2010 the refuge manager approved the removal of foxes within six miles of the brant colony on the Y-K Delta. More than 40 fox were taken, along with about 20 more the following year. Those years, brant nesting success was very high.

Natural mortality is another factor impacting brant populations. “On the Y-K Delta, brant recruitment rates are declining and have been since the year 2000,” Sedinger confirms, and turns to the importance of grazing lawns for young brant. “Goslings need protein, and grazing lawns offer three times more protein than mature grasses. Grazing lawns are created by adult brant feeding on grass in the nesting area. The goslings then feed on the nutrient-rich, short grass. We’re seeing fewer grazing lawns on theY-K Delta as adult brant numbers continue to decline.”

The affects of a gosling’s less than ideal diet is quickly realized on their first migratory flight, in this case from the Y-K Delta to Izembek Lagoon. “Y-K brant are fledging at 600 grams, compared to those on the North Slope that are fledging at 900 grams,” Sedinger notes. “Adult brant weigh 1,000 grams when the fall migration commences. As a result, there’s a recent, large mortality rate of fledgling brant that don’t even make it to Izembek Lagoon from the Y-K Delta.”

There are currently 18,000-25,000 brant nests on the Y-K Delta, down 15,000 nests from 20 years ago. Today, on Alaska’s North Slope there are 4,000-5,000 brant nests; there were only about 2,000 nests there at the turn of the century. North Slope nesting brant are spread along the coast, with about half of the nests being concentrated in the Colville River Delta.

map showing breeding areas for pacific black brant
Map showing breeding areas for the Pacific black brant. (Photo courtesy of USFWS)

Grazing lawns on the North Slope are increasing, as are brant numbers. Brant don’t survive on insects. As a result of prevalent grazing lawns, brant on the Slope are getting much more protein than the Y-K brant, so they’re growing faster and surviving their first migration.

“A big key when it comes to estimating brant populations is how much numbers bounce from one year to the next, in a fashion that’s not plausible,” notes Flint. When you look at the remote places brant nest, and take into consideration we don’t know the migration routes and timing because we’ve not been able to fit them with transmitters, Flint makes a good case.

What Lies Ahead

Studies are currently being done on the world’s largest eel grass beds–nearly 45,000 acres–in Izembek Lagoon, where a growing number of brant are wintering. Scientists are also close to finding a way to track brant migrations with transmitters. Add in efficient counting methodologies, much-needed predator control, and a reevaluation of subsistence hunting practices, and the future could brighten for Pacific black brant.

In November of 2017, I was hunting Izembek Lagoon with Wasley when a major storm hit. Right before dark, every brant on the west side of the lagoon funneled high into the sky–almost out of sight–and headed for Mexico. Just like that, tens of thousands of brant were gone. It’s one of the most awesome acts of nature I’ve witnessed.

While some brant did stick around, what intrigued me most was the 3,000 mile, 60-hour nonstop flight these little geese endure. Right then, I vowed to hunt brant in Mexico. I did, and it was one of the best waterfowl hunting experiences of my life.

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