Book documents 25-year goose-banding project

ANCHORAGE — Robert Paniyak looks back wistfully to a time more than two decades ago when he and other Alaska Native youths helped scientists capture and band geese to address declining numbers of migratory waterfowl in the state’s Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

Now Paniyak and others in the Cup’ik Eskimo village of Chevak are about to be inundated with memories from a new book detailing their nearly 25-year partnership with federal agencies involved in a wildlife conservation project carried out in remote tundra wetlands. The village of about 970 residents is about 500 miles west of Anchorage.

Three years after the end of the program, Chevak residents are getting copies of the glossy book, which is full of photographs taken over the years at the roundup site at Old Chevak, where the village used to be located south of the current site. Many photos include the faces of smiling young people from the village — including Paniyak — who participated over the years.

“It was a lot of fun,” Paniyak, who is now 42, said as he recalled chasing geese, swans and the occasional ducks. “We were rounding them up.”

The youths helped biologists capture the waterfowl and fit them with collars and leg bands to glean information officials say was used to make decisions about the bird species’ recovery.

The 90-page book, “Banding Together to Learn & Preserve,” was formally presented to two Chevak representatives in Anchorage Nov. 21 by officials with agencies including the U.S. Geological Survey. One of the village representatives was James Ayuluk, president of the Chevak traditional council who also teaches Cup’ik culture to village middle school and high school students.

“With the children I’m working with, they’re going to see their parents, you know, 20 years ago. It’ll be something for them,” Ayuluk said at the presentation at the USGS Alaska Science Center. “And memories will come back to the parents as well.”

Another speaker was Craig Ely, a USGS research wildlife biologist who spearheaded the effort that began in 1986 when the science center was part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. At the time, Ely worked for Fish and Wildlife when the partnership was formed to support a regional need for information on waterfowl including four goose species, such as cackling geese.

The partnership between federal agencies and the village stemmed from a sort of necessity, Ely said. It would be too expensive to fly scores of researchers to the remote nesting grounds for many migratory birds in the marshy delta. Chevak was the closest village to the grounds, and so the question arose: Would local youths be willing to spend up to a week at what would become known as Goose Camp?

“It turned out they were interested,” Ely said.

Over the years, so many Chevak young people wanted to participate, in fact, that the duties were later divided into two teams so more people could get a chance to play a role once the birds dropped their primary feathers and became flightless.

The young villagers and biologists would head to Old Chevak on motorboats for a 30-mile ride in the meandering Kashunuk River. At the old village site, they set up camp in tents as well as a wooden building that once was a church. They helped biologists capture geese and swans. Sometimes satellite transmitters were attached to the birds.

During off-times, participants had plenty to do, including berry picking, storytelling, exploring an old cemetery and helping at meal times.

“Every year, we had to turn kids away,” Ely said. “It became known as a good time out there.”