Alaska Seabird Reintroduction Boondoggle
Eider Project to Cost Nearly a Million per Breeding Hen with Uncertain Prospects
Washington, DC — A federal plan to reintroduce a threatened seabird in Western Alaska is a misguided mess, according to comments filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The group is urging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to take its plan back to the drawing board.
Today is the deadline for public comments on the Service’s Draft Environmental Assessment for the Reintroduction of Steller’s Eiders to the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, Alaska. There is only one breeding population of Steller’s eiders in Alaska (there are two in Arctic Russia) which nests next to small ponds primarily on the Arctic Coastal Plain. Weighing less than two pounds, in the U.S. this marine bird is classified as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
The Service wants to reestablish a viable western Alaska subpopulation of breeding Steller’s eiders by reintroducing the species to the Delta. The PEER comments point out, however, that the Service has not complied with the spirit of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and that the draft Environmental Assessment may represent a justification for a decision already made. In addition –
- The reintroduction site is at 60ºN latitude, the general demarcation between continuous and discontinuous permafrost. It is also where the rate of current and projected climate change is more than double that of anywhere else on earth. Yet, the Service has not even factored in climate change with resultant loss of needed vegetation into survivability of the introduced subpopulation;
- The draft Environmental Assessment describes the reintroduction as occurring over “several years” but the project may actually span approximately 30 years. This is problematic because it undermines the Service’s credibility and overlooks factors such as the rate of climate change and its attendant impacts in the Arctic and subarctic regions; and
- The draft does not indicate the project’s projected cost of $45 million over the course of 30 years to achieve a total goal of 50 breeding hens. Thus, under an ideal scenario, each breeding hen will cost at least $900,000 but meeting the goal of 50 breeding hens will almost certainly drive the total cost per hen much higher.
“A million dollars per hen would make these the most expensive birds on the planet; we could buy each breeding pair their own condo for less than this project,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, calling it a “biological bridge to nowhere.” “We strongly support recovery of threatened species but this assessment makes clear that the Service has not done its homework, thereby creating an unreasonable risk of a futile reintroduction and an enormous waste of taxpayer money.”
PEER also argues that, given the multiplying ecological needs of the Alaska region, diversion of this much funding for a questionable project hamstrings the Service’s abilities to better respond to an array of emerging ecological challenges it will surely face in coming years.