In response to a lawsuit and legal settlement with the Center for Biological Diversity and Christians Caring for Creation, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service designated 40,832 square miles (26,133,120 acres) of critical habitat in Alaska for the endangered spectacled and Steller's eiders on January 12, 2001. Critical habitat is defined as all necessary for the recovery of the species. It is protected from destruction or adverse modification. This is one of the largest critical habitat designations ever made under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The Inupiat Eskimo name for the Steller's eider is Iginikkauktuk, "the bird that sat in the campfire," referring to the burnt appearance of the male's breast and stomach.THE STELLER'S EIDER was listed as threatened Under the ESA in June 1997. It is the smallest of all the eiders, recognizable by its black eye patch (male). Steller's eiders are diving ducks that feed primarily on mollusks and crustaceans, including the common blue mussel and the sand-hopper. During the breeding season, they also eat insects and plant materials. They make their nests on tundra, adjacent to shallow ponds or within drained lake basins. As recently as the early 1970s, Steller's eiders may have numbered half a million worldwide. The current population is estimated at between 150,000 and 200,000 globally. In North America, Steller's eiders are restricted to northern Alaska. They no longer nest on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, other western Alaska habitats or the eastern portion of the North Slope. Causes for the decline worldwide, and the reduction in the Alaskan breeding population, are not known for certain, but the species is clearly threatened by oil and gas development and habitat degradation.

OIL, GUNS AND FOXES are three of the most visible threats to the eiders. The critical habitat designation did not include essential areas on Alaska's North Slope which were in the proposed designation. These areas in and around the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the National Petroleum Reserve were the most politically contentious because of their potential to interfere with oil and gas drilling plans. They were attacked by the big oil and gas corporations, the Alaska State Legislature, and the Alaska Congressional delegation. George W. Bush has pledged to push oil drilling into the wildlife refuge despite decades of opposition by Native Alaskans and environmentalists. The deletion of the North Slope from the critical habitat zone is an ominous sign.


Seabirds and their eggs have been an important food source for coastal peoples around the world for thousands of years. In northern Canada, native diets have long included seabirds, from British Columbia to Newfoundland. In the Arctic, the thick-billed murre was a commonly taken species; at Digges Island in northern Hudson Bay, one of Henry Hudson's crew described finding stone huts containing murres "hanged by the neck." The Inuit name of a nearby headland translates as "the place of beating with sticks," referring to an early native method of killing the birds as they flew overhead. Murre eggs are still a major food source for certain Inuit communities in Canada.

Unfortunately, after the arrival of Europeans, the introduction of commercial egg harvesting—with thousands of eggs being hauled into growing towns and cities for sale—led to overexploitation and drastic reductions in populations.

Although traditional subsistence harvest likely did not have a significant effect on historically larger eider populations, it may be contributing to the bird's current decline now that the eider population is smaller. Annual harvest take of all eider species on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta from 1985 to 1991 averaged 3,800 eiders. Ingestion of lead shot from other hunting activities is also a likely threat.

Predation by arctic foxes, which have been introduced to many islands where they never occurred naturally, may be reducing the number of spectacled eiders as well as common eiders and snow geese. On the mainland, foxes can now scavenge for winter food at garbage dumps adjacent to oil drilling sites, meaning they don't have to roam south in the winter. On the other hand, high lemming numbers reduce predation on eider eggs; when lemmings decline, foxes take more eggs. The interactions between these species are not yet fully understood, but one thing is clear: industrial activity in the remote Arctic is bringing about far-reaching disruptions in the food chain.

ECOSYSTEM COLLAPSE OF THE BERING SEA may also be affecting the eiders. Many species including Steller sea lions, sea otters, and bull kelp have declined at a remarkable rate in recent years. Commercial overfishing is definitely taking a toll and climate change may be at work as well. The entire ecological web of the Bering Sea is coming apart. In addition to the eider critical habitat, the Center has also filed a formal petition to designate critical habitat for the endangered right whale in the Bering Sea.

graphic Andrew Rodman ©2002
July 3, 2003
Go back