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Healthy waterfowl populations mean bigger bag limits for Alaska hunters

  • Author: Mike Campbell
  • Updated: October 18, 2016
  • Published August 24, 2016

Black Brant geese congregate to molt their flight feathers in the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area of the National Petroleum Reserve – Alaska.  (Tyler Lewis / USGS)

As the Sept. 1 opening of waterfowl hunting season approaches, a wave of good news awaits hunters and bird lovers of all stripes. The cause: a glut of waterfowl.

Consequently, state biologists have boosted daily bag limits for canvasbacks, snow geese and brant.

"Goose populations have been doing well and duck populations have been doing well," said Dan Rosenberg, the state waterfowl coordinator with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Good weather for ducks

That trend stretches back about 20 years, he said, due to good nesting conditions on Canadian prairies and much of North America, including Alaska. Warming weather hasn't hurt, either.

"In 2016, we saw early ice and snow melt in western Alaska," Rosenberg said, "followed by not much flooding and a warm summer. That was good, and nesting conditions were pretty ideal for ducks and geese and swans. "

In some cases the population uptick is dramatic. Rosenberg said the 2016 breeding population of canvasbacks was 78,000 birds, or some 91 percent more than the prior year. But he cautions that big year-to-year fluctuations are less important than the long-term 20-year average, which is slowly growing for most species.

Here are the big changes for Alaska waterfowl hunters, including the 6,000 or so that purchase federal duck stamps.

  • Canvasback
  • : With the North America population exceeding 725,000 birds and this year’s population estimate some 26 percent higher than the average over the past quarter-century, Alaska hunters will be allowed two birds a day, six in possession.
  • Brant
  • : Following a winter survey that counted 140,000 birds, the statewide bag limit will increase from two to three birds, with nine in possession. The boost was approved by the Pacific Flyway Council ( ) as part of a harvest strategy when the brant population tops 135,000 birds.
  • Snow and Ross’ geese:
  • Breeding surveys in the western Arctic, including the Arctic Coastal Plain, suggest the population is increasing so fast it has the “potential to reach undesirable levels,” according to a Division of Wildlife Conservation press release. Consequently, the bag limit will rise from four to six birds a day, 18 in possession.
  • Snow geese stopped in at Potter Marsh and the mud flats along Turnagain Arm near the Seward Highway to rest and feed in the spring of 2013. (Bob Hallinen / ADN archive)

    ‘Birds don’t get any dumber’

    Opening day is next Thursday, with Southcentral hunters clustering in Palmer Hay Flats State Game Refuge, the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge, Susitna Flats State Game Refuge, Redoubt Bay, the Placer River and Portage areas as well as other favored spots.

    "Everybody's desire is to get out on opening day," Rosenberg said. "Birds don't get any dumber than that.

    "But things change year to year. If there's no reason for the birds to migrate because of weather, they don't generally do that. Typically, a cold front out in western Alaska gives them a reason to move."

    Other species hunters may encounter include mallards, northern pintail, scaup, teal, American widgeon and northern shovelers. Grab a copy of the Fish and Game publication "Ducks at a Distance" to help with identifications. Ducks Unlimited offers a mobile app as well that includes photos, sounds and descriptions.

    Kenai hunter Joe Cannava said he's flown across Cook Inlet the last five years and noted that the "geese are pretty wily" and that he's never shot a brant.

    "But there are always plenty of birds over there because it doesn't get hit very hard," he said, noting that he expected Southcentral's wet August weather would help as more and more potholes fill with water.

    However, hunting is a little more costly this year after changes to the federal Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act raised federal waterfowl stamp price $10 to $25. All hunters at least 16 years old must have a stamp, except for rural subsistence hunters. That's on top of a hunting license. More information is available at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement, 786-3311.

    Although the waterfowl stamps are more costly, Alaska waterfowl hunters can admire the photo of a Pacific brant in flight by photographer Milo Burcham of Cordova.

    Contact Mike Campbell at

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