Chilkat Valley News - Serving Haines and Klukwan, Alaska since 1966

Board addresses Eagle Fest decline


November 15, 2018

The juvenile eagle soars after being released at the festival finale. Jessika Read of Anchorage and Jeanne Grant of Oregon were the high bidders of the auction and released the birds. Photo courtesy of Rustin Gooden.

The Tourism Advisory Board discussed partnering with the American Bald Eagle Foundation to bolster the Alaska Bald Eagle Festival, which has experienced declining attendance in recent years.

Tourism director Carolann Wooton told the board she's heard complaints that the festival is not the community event it once was. "We need something," Wooton said of attracting more locals to the festival. "We need to make it more of a festival, something that will allow the community to become more engaged. I'm totally pontificating at this point, but I see the frustration and I do not want to see that festival go away. It would be a crime."

Board members suggested partnering with the Haines Chamber of Commerce as well. Foundation executive director Cheryl McRoberts told the CVN that several years ago, they recorded 271 festival participants. This year only 96 registered for the event. "I don't know what the answer is," McRoberts said. "The weather was a factor. I had a number of people asking how much snow we had, and whether or not the river was frozen."

Pam Randles conducts eagle counts from the roadway. She told the CVN during warm years, like this year, when the bulk of the tributaries aren't frozen, returning fish are more spread out and so are the eagles that feed on them. When the rivers are frozen, the fish pile up at the alluvial fan where the Tsirku River flows into the Chilkat River which is visible from the Haines Highway where people line up to photograph the eagles.

"Last year the numbers went back up again," Randles said. "This year they're down again, but this year is warmer. I suspect it's not the eagle population that's waning but their visibility from the road."

Randles also cited a decrease in wild chum stocks returning to the Chilkat watershed, which translates to a lack of food for the eagles.

At the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve Advisory Council meeting on Wednesday, foundation founder Dave Olerud said fewer eagles are migrating to Haines because of the decrease in natural chum stocks. He blamed hatchery chum runs for impacting the natural stocks.

"We're going to be an embarrassment of Alaska when we can no longer say we are the headquarters, in a sense, of the greatest gathering of eagles in the world," Olerud told the council. "That's no longer true. Do you know where it is? Southern British Columbia. They have us beat in every way."

Alaska Department of Fish and Game commercial fisheries biologist Wyatt Rhea-Fournier told the CVN that natural chum returns have steadily decreased over time, and that this year the commercial fleet was prohibited from catching fall chum because he observed few chum in river fish wheels and in the spawning grounds.

Tourism advisory board members discussed rescheduling the event to a later date to try to increase the likelihood of colder temperatures. Board member Sean Gaffney, who also sits on the foundation's board of trustees, said moving the festival later in November would conflict with Thanksgiving and probably impact attendance. He suggested looking at a time in the first week of December.

Chamber of Commerce director Tracey Harmon said moving the festival to early December could bolster the retail and service economy. "We're in the middle of a shop local campaign and we're trying to encourage Small Business Saturday," Harmon said. "An extra 400 people around town shopping the first and second week of December, looking for places to eat and with money to spend would be fantastic."

McRoberts said the foundation board will meet in January to discuss the most recent festival and how to improve it in future years. She said she's open to collaborating with community organizations.


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