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Inside the Outdoors: Snow goose numbers far too much of a good thing

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Sometimes on our life’s journey we acquire beliefs we consider “gospel,” which we come to believe almost absolutely and are unlikely to question.

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One example is the belief that the march of time and progress has resulted in a diminishing, rather than an increase, of wildlife abundance. This is not so unreasonable, considering how many species have been driven to extinction, and others whose abundance has been greatly reduced.

Some, like the passenger pigeon, lost their battle for survival to market hunting before the conservation movement took hold in this country. Others, like the canvasback and numerous other duck species, declined in number because many of the wetlands, shallow lakes and prairie margins where they nested were drained and plowed for agriculture.

Settlement, logging and big changes in Minnesota’s northern forests gradually pushed the woodland caribou, once native to our state, into less developed parts of Canada to the north. Some biologists believe that early manifestations of climate change are beginning to do the same to moose in Minnesota even today.

But a few species have actually grown in abundance, either from man-caused environmental changes that favored them, or due to a decline in the natural forces that had kept their population in balance with their environment.

White-tailed deer are a classic example of a species exploding in abundance due to environmental changes wrought by man. Bio-historians tell us there were only about 4 million in what is now the United States when European settlement began in earnest in the mid-1600s.

Today there are about 32 million, thanks to the break-up of vast unbroken tracts of mature forest, which do not favor whitetails, by logging and agriculture. Deer are not equally distributed and abundant over their entire modern day range, but there are far more than when the explorers and fur traders first penetrated the wilderness of the Minnesota Territory in the decades before our statehood.

Even harder to imagine is a wildlife population explosion that actually endangers the future of that species. But that is what is going on with several subspecies of wild geese, which collectively are referred to as snow, or “light,” geese. They have become so numerous that nearly unrestricted hunting is being employed in an effort to control them.

One of the unquestioned evils of the market hunting era during the late 19th century was allowing the harvest of ducks and geese in spring as well as in fall. Hunting any creature during the time when it’s mating and raising the next generation seems like killing the goose that lays the golden egg.

In that era, market demand for meat, and the killing efficiency of the market hunters, were enough to depress many waterfowl species, to the point where the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 was needed to stop the carnage.

Fast-forward to the early years of the 21st century, meaning today, and we have an entirely different scenario playing out with one waterfowl species. This is the 15th year of a special U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) “conservation order” designed to reduce the number of snow, blue and Ross’s geese as they make their way to Canadian Arctic breeding grounds in spring.

Lesser snow and blue geese are color phases of the same goose, and the Ross’s goose is a closely related subspecies. The combination of expanding agriculture and the establishment of wildlife refuges along their traditional migration route from wintering areas in the south, through the Midwest en route to the Arctic, has given these geese both greater security and an expanded food supply during migration. As a result, their mortality has greatly diminished.

From an estimated 800,000 light geese in the 1960s the population had grown to 5 million or more by 1999. Damage to the fragile Arctic ecosystem where they breed was becoming more and more evident, accompanied by noticeable declines in as many as 30 other migratory species that share those breeding grounds, including several duck species.

Similar to overgrazing of a pasture by livestock, the light geese were so completely pulling up vegetation where their growing numbers fed, that biologists feared it would take decades to recover in the short Arctic growing seasons; if the land recovered at all. 1999 was the year the USFWS first issued its conservation order, in cooperation with the Canadian Wildlife Service, encouraging the harvest of more geese by hunters to reduce the population.

The 2014 spring light goose hunt in Minnesota, already open and running through April 30, is an example of the liberal harvest rules intended to reduce light goose numbers. Shotguns are not limited to the usual three-shells-only. Electronic calls that imitate snow geese can be used. There are no daily bag limits. Only a $2.50 permit application fee is required, available through the Minnesota DNR’s website or by calling the agency at 888-665-4236.

Only a tiny fraction of Minnesota’s fall waterfowl hunters have taken part in the spring light goose hunt each year since 1999. The migration touches only the western part of the state, unlike more widely distributed Canada geese. To the disappointment of U.S. and Canadian wildlife biologists, there are no indications that light goose numbers are declining as they had hoped. Just the opposite seems likely.

Some believe it will be necessary to take extreme measures, such as destroying nests on the breeding grounds, to have any hope of reducing their number to the point where damage to the vegetation that feeds these and other creatures there can be halted, and hopefully reversed.

It’s a wildlife population scenario quite different from what we are used to.

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