On a lonely stretch of road that cuts through the blonde-hued tundra outside Barrow, a crowd gathered Monday.
Scientists, tourists, tribal leaders, elders and camera-wielding reporters packed a weathered boardwalk, assembled to see an owl named Lumi, after the Finnish word for snow.
For the past half-year the year old female had been convalescing in Southeast Alaska after some bad luck in Yakutat. Now, after months of being fed dead mice, the fluffy, wide-eyed owl would be ceremonially released into the wild.
The owl's transport from Sitka to Barrow had even found a corporate sponor: Alaska Airlines, which paid for Lumi and her handlers' tickets to the release, along with those of a handful of journalists.
After an invocation in Inupiaq and English, it was clear that Lumi -- who had been travelling in a pet-carrier for nearly two days -- was very ready to get back to tundra life."She's ready to go," yelled Jennifer Cedarleaf, the bird's rehablitator, as the owl dug her talons through a leather shield on her arm.
While the release of a rehabilitated bird like Lumi may draw crowds and cameras, the real key to the health of North Slope snowy owls is the lowly lemming, according to one biologist who has been studying the population for 20 years.
The small rodents make up 90 percent of the owl’s food supply, estimates Denver Holt, a Montana-based biologist and executive director of the Owl Research Institute.
“Everything eats lemmings,” he said. “When lemmings are abundant the whole tundra is alive.”
Shorebirds, foxes, ducks, geese, cranes, weasels all devour the mouse-like rodents.
And when lemming populations fluctuate, so does snowy owl breeding.
In 2008, there were 35 nests in Barrow. No nests were found in 2009 or 2010.
So far this year, there are three.
“It doesn’t look like it’s going to be a big year (for snowy owl breeding),” Holt said. “Lemming populations are low.”
The lemmings act as “kind of a barometer” for the overall health of tundra-dwelling animals, Holt said. It’s not yet clear what might account for fluctuations in the lemming population, or whether climactic changes in the Arctic might have something to do with it. (The animals do not actually kill themselves en masse by jumping off cliffs, as popular myth suggests.)
One thing is certain: snowy owls have always been central to Barrow’s existence. The town’s Inupiaq name Ukpiagvik means “the place where we hunt snowy owls.”
While the owls are no longer hunted, the town is the only place in the United States where they will breed and make nests during the summer months.
Some snowy owls even spend the winter in Barrow if the food supply permits it.
Others migrate south in search of food. For Lumi, that journey didn’t go so well. She was found on a roadside in Yakutat last November with part of a claw torn off, possibly from being electrocuted.
The owl was transferred to the Alaska Raptor Center in Sitka, a nonprofit rehabilitation and education facility that mostly takes in injured bald eagles. After the partialamputation of a talon, she spent months recovering, Cedarleaf said.
On Sunday, she boarded an Alaska Airlines flight (the airline has a policy of transporting injured birds to the raptor center in Sitka for free) in a dog kennel covered in cardboard to minimize agitation stemming from the sensation of flying on aBoeing 737 instead of her own wings.
“I always think of it as being abducted by aliens,” Cedarleaf said. “We pick these guys up, we stick ‘em with needles, we feed them food that’s not normal for them and then we shove them in a kennel and put them back on an airplane to somewhere totally different in the end.”
Despite her injury, handlers and biologists on hand at Monday’s release said her prospects for survival were good.
She flapped her wings and flew onto the tundra to the crowd's cheers and rapid-fire photo taking.
One thing is clear, said Holt: Like the polar bear, the owls get people to pay attention to threats to the Arctic ecosystem as a whole.
The snowy owl, with its tufted, milk-white feathers, round eyes and inquisitive look, is what scientists call a “charismatic ambassador” -- an animal that inspires cartoon characters, nature documentaries, love and crowds.
The lemmings Lumi will have to hunt for to survive in the wild?
Not so much.