A LWfG in front and a WfG in the rear. Copyright Jari Kostet

Portal to the Lesser White-fronted Goose

- by the Fennoscandian Lesser White-fronted Goose project

Reintroduction projects in the Lesser White-fronted Goose critically reviewed

by Tomas Aarvak, Ingar Jostein Øien & Paul Shimmings

NOF-BirdLife Norway’s Conservation Science Department have just published a report that presents a critical review of projects that have bred Lesser White-fronted Geese in captivity and released them into the wild. The report examines both past and ongoing projects and provides an overview of such initiatives as well as a critical assessment of the negative effects that such releases may have for our wild Fennoscandian Lesser White-fronted Goose population. In addition, the report addresses many contemporary issues concerning the distribution and population structure of both the reintroduced Lesser White-fronted Goose population in Sweden and the wild Fennoscandian population.

For some it might seem odd that such a measure was deemed necessary, and it should be pointed out that the decision was based on good scientific knowledge and has a rather complex, yet good, explanation. Work to safeguard Lesser White-fronted Geese involves more than just safeguarding their genes. The conservation work entails safeguarding a wild population of Lesser White-fronted Geese with its natural behaviour and ecological adaptations intact, and not least the species’ natural migration routes. Migration routes that have developed and adapted during many generations. The work involves preserving all aspects affecting a critically endangered bird population, such that it in turn will become self-sustaining and remain a natural part of the arctic ecosystem.

Conservation of species can be implemented at an international, regional or a local level. Many species are migratory, and cross political boundaries. For such migratory birds an international approach is often the best option, often supplemented by regional or local actions. Single actions in one country can have an enormous impact throughout the whole of the range of a particular population. For some species there are international flyway plans, which cover all range states for that particular species. Such is the case for the Lesser White-fronted Goose Anser erythropus.

The wild Fennoscandian population is the smallest of the three world populations of Lesser White-fronted Goose, all of whom have exhibited declines in numbers in recent decades. Conservation efforts directed towards the Fennoscandian population of this enigmatic goose involve many persons in an international network of people that monitor this population very closely. The amount of time and energy involved have paid dividends! The population has begun to increase thanks to conservation measures in many of the range states in which it naturally occurs. But, it is still in a perilous position, and it would take little to tip the balance in the opposite direction. Due to targeted conservation actions, from predator control in the breeding areas, through habitat protection at stopover sites on migration, to guarding by surveillance cameras and active patrolling in its winter quarters, as well as information campaigns and changes in hunting practices, then the future looks brighter today than it has for many decades for this remnant population.

However, parallel to the intense ongoing conservation work for the Fennoscandian Lesser White-fronted Goose population, there has been a long ongoing debate regarding the value and implications of the reintroduction of the species in Sweden. The reintroduction activities have not been accepted unanimously by the international bodies working to safeguard the Lesser White-fronted Goose, and are considered to pose a real threat to the survival of the Fennoscandian population. The releases of captive-reared Lesser White-fronted Geese in Sweden have given cause for concern, not least due to our fears that birds from the reintroduced population might enter into the wild Fennoscandian population. Our fears have not been unfounded, as birds from the current release project in Sweden have been reported within the range of the wild Fennoscandian population, both during winter as well as at spring-staging sites. Released birds have also been observed within the natural range of the population in areas we hope might in future be recolonised naturally from the wild population. In addition to genetic aspects/hybridisation problems in the free-flying Swedish population, the released birds follow a human-modified flyway and utilise unnatural habitats during their life cycle. Extensive conservation efforts to safeguard the wild population across the whole of its range risk being jeopardised due to such careless and uncontrolled releases.

The aim of the current report is to present an overview of the release initiatives as well as a critical review of the effects that releases of Lesser White-fronted geese have had, or might have, upon the wild population. Work on this report commenced in 2014, four years after the start of the current releases of Lesser White-fronted Geese in Sweden, when it became evident that the release activities would carry on and escalate, even though it was well known that these actions were likely to be detrimental, rather than beneficial, to conservation of the Lesser White-fronted Goose in both Fennoscandia and along the entire flyway.

A series of ongoing disagreements regarding the captive breeding, supplementation and reintroduction of Lesser White-fronted Geese in Europe have severely hampered the implementation of conservation action for the wild populations of Lesser White-fronted Geese by repeatedly drawing away the focus of the international discussion from the urgent conservation priorities for the species. The data presented in this critical review should make it clear to everyone why we cannot accept releasing of Lesser White-fronted Geese and the negative effects of release projects upon the existing wild population in Fennoscandia. The majority of the European range states to the species as well as the wider international conservation community now consider the Swedish Lesser White-fronted Goose population to be a serious threat to the wild Fennoscandian population. It is therefore difficult to understand how these activities can still continue and be an issue for discussion that is obstructing important conservation progress of the original wild populations, including revision of the International Single Species Action Plan (ISSAP) for the species, which has now been ongoing for four years.

In Enare Sami, one of ten or more Sami languages (which belong to the Uralic language family), the species is known as “Lavláçuonja”, or “the singing goose”. We hope that by halting the further releases of Lesser White-fronted Geese we can ensure that this enigmatic bird species continues to sing in the countries where the species naturally occurs or once occurred. The existence of the Fennoscandian population can be safeguarded by international cooperative efforts, and must not be threatened by actions that work against internationally agreed conservation priorities for the species.

By cooperating at all levels, we can together save the Lesser White-fronted Goose! We cannot accept that projects that are not part of an international flyway plan, and which may place the species in an even more perilous state than today, be allowed to continue. The Fennoscandian Lesser White-fronted Goose Conservation Project are indeed working towards a reestablishment of Lesser White-fronted Geese in the former breeding range of the species, also in Sweden.

The full report can be downloaded here»

Norwegian Ornithological Society www.birdlife.orgWWF Finland

© The Fennoscandian Lesser White-fronted Goose project jointly run by BirdLife Norway and WWF Finland. All paintings by © Jari Kostet.