As one of North America’s leading snow goose researchers, Robert “Rocky” Rockwell is about to begin his 51st field season at the La Perouse Bay Research Camp on the Hudson Bay coast near Churchill, Man.

The lure of the Arctic and its ever-changing environment keeps him coming back for more, said Rockwell, an ornithologist at the American Museum of Natural History and professor at City University of New York.

“Every year I go up there, I say, ‘Well, this is yet a different year,’ ” said Rockwell, who is an adjunct faculty member in the UND Biology Department. “Well, last year was No. 50, and this will be 51, and I don’t think I’ve had two years that are the same yet.

“Every year, we learn some new things, so it’s a neat challenge.”

Rockwell, who serves on graduate student committees at UND, was in Grand Forks recently as students Sam Hervey and Tanner Stechmann defended their master’s degree theses, both of which focused on common eider duck research in the Hudson Bay region.

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In recent years, UND students and faculty, led by associate professor Susan Ellis-Felege, have played an increasing role in Rockwell’s work at the La Perouse Bay Research Camp, and so his visit to UND also included discussion on the upcoming field season. UND student William Palarski will join Rockwell in the field this summer to collect data on snow geese and common eiders.

The veteran researcher has high praise for UND’s Biology Department and its students.

“I travel a lot, and I’m in a lot of universities, and I would have to say the students here … I find these kids interested, I find them committed,” Rockwell said. “I really enjoy my time here. I keep coming back.”

Long-term study

Rockwell’s five decades of research on the Hudson Bay coastline largely has focused on the overabundant Midcontinent Population of snow geese, which continue to decimate the fragile Arctic salt marsh habitat where they breed, and the impact of that population on other Arctic wildlife and plants.

The area near Churchill and neighboring Wapusk National Park is home to one of the most closely studied snow goose colonies in North America.

“A lot of the (work) is the same monitoring we’ve always done because long-term research requires long-term databases,” Rockwell said. “And the only way you can have a long-term database that means anything is, ‘don’t change the way you did it.’ ”

The Midcontinent population of snow geese, which migrates through North Dakota every spring and fall, remains near 12 million, Rockwell said, despite liberalized hunting regulations and a spring management hunt implemented in 1999.

The spring hunt, which has no bag limit, allows hunters to use electronic calls and unplugged shotguns holding more than three shells, neither of which are permitted during the regular season.

Still, the population continues to grow, Rockwell said. Annual hunting mortality averages about 4% to 6%, he said, while nonhunting mortality varies from 10% to 20%, with wide annual fluctuations.

That trend is the focus of a newly published article in The Condor, a journal published by the American Ornithological Society. Researchers David Koons, Lisa Aubry and Rockwell collaborated on the article.

“We are working hard to figure out what is driving both (nonhunting mortality) and its annual variation,” Rockwell said.

Last year was a bust for snow goose production in the Arctic, Rockwell said, a trend he attributes to extreme weather during the spring nesting season and high depredation by predators such as foxes.

“Depredation for us was so extreme that we had complete failure,” Rockwell said. “Farther north, they just never nested. That was the lowest productivity year for snow geese probably ever.”

The trend extended across the Arctic, he said.

“I think part of that for us on Cape Churchill Peninsula was we had a bunch of snow that melted in March, it got wet in March and then it went to 40 below again. So, we had 3 feet of ice on top of everything.”

That likely killed off voles and other small rodents foxes rely on for food, perhaps prompting them to switch to snow geese and their eggs, Rockwell said.

Black bears and grizzly bears also are becoming more abundant on the Hudson Bay coast -- a trend Rockwell attributes to a changing climate -- and feed on snow geese and their eggs. Polar bears, of course, are indigenous to the Hudson Bay region, and the researchers now deal with all three species on a regular basis, Rockwell says.

“They destroyed four black bears last year in Churchill in the town, so those guys are moving farther north -- more berries etc.,” he said. “The grizzly numbers also are up. We keep getting more grizzlies that are coming across from -- as near as I can figure out, the population up in the Yukon, the (Northwest Territories) and the part of Nunavut that has grizzly bears has been exploding again.”

Carrying guns in the field is mandatory, given the number of bears on the landscape, Rockwell saiys.

“It used to be we didn’t worry too much about bears until late June-early July,” he said. “Last year, I had a black bear trying to break into the buildings the second day we were in camp.”

Clean safety record

Such encounters might be exciting for students new to the camp, but after 50 years, Rockwell says he can do without such excitement. The La Perouse Bay Research Camp is the only Arctic camp with a blemish-free record for injuries or shooting bears, he said.

He attributes that record to training and practice, coupled with strict adherence to protocols outlined in a nine-page bear safety document.

“We’re the only camp,” Rockwell said. “Every other research camp has wound up (with incidents) -- and I’m not blaming them, I’m not saying they did anything necessarily wrong -- but I think we do a lot of things right. And I’m very proud of that record.”

A key question going into this year’s field season, Rockwell says, is whether last year’s increase in predation will prompt the snow geese to nest elsewhere or whether they’ll return to the coast near Churchill.

The resulting bust in production won’t impact the population because adult survival is the big driver of snow goose numbers, Rockwell says.

“A lot of the models that we’ve built and worked on for trying to look at the effects of bears on snow geese is the old question of, ‘Well, just how stupid is a snow goose? If it fails, will it come back to the same place again?’

“My answer in the past has always been, ‘Oh yeah, they’ll be back,’ but we’re going to see this year.”

Robert "Rocky" Rockwell
Robert "Rocky" Rockwell