Tuesday, January 31st, 2023
Tuesday, January 31st, 2023

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‘Light’ goose population remains high

Minneapolis – Another spring light goose season – the result of
an ongoing federal “conservation order” – wrapped up this week, but
indications are that despite the efforts of hunters, the population
of snows, blues, and Ross’ geese (collectively, “light” geese)
remains high, and their Arctic breeding habitat continues to take
the resultant abuse.

“It’s been two steps forward, one step back,” Jim Kelley, of the
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Minneapolis, said of the
population-reduction efforts.

According to a USFWS press release in 2000, a year after the
implementation of the conservation order that provided for the
spring harvest of “light” geese in several Mississippi and Central
flyways states – with liberalized hunting methods – the breeding
population of the geese was about 5 million birds. Last fall, as
the Service announced continued use of the order, the press release
stated, “The current breeding population of mid-continent light
geese likely exceeds 5 million birds, an increase of more than 300
percent since the mid-1970s.”

Current research under way in Canada, by researcher Ray
Alisauskas, indicates the light goose population might be
substantially higher than that.

Recently, the USFWS made the conservation order – in place on an
interim basis since 1999 – permanent. The order was the result of
the Arctic Tundra Habitat Emergency Conservation Act.

Kelley, the USFWS’s Mississippi Flyway representative in
Minneapolis, said spring harvest of the birds had increased the
overall harvest, yet that harvest hasn’t outpaced good hatches of
the birds on their struggling breeding grounds in Canada, much of
it Manitoba tundra.

Hunting of snow geese during spring in Minnesota is largely a
hit-or-miss endeavor; most of the major migration occurs to the
west, in the Dakotas.

Still, the state typically issues between 1,000 and 2,000
permits in the spring, says Steve Cordts, waterfowl specialist for
the Minnesota DNR. He said the harvest varies in the spring, but
usually is about an average of two geese per hunter.

The state’s total harvest pales compared with other Midwestern
states’ harvest: During the 2006-07 season, the conservation order
resulted in the harvest of about 160,000 geese in Missouri, and
about 96,000 each in the states of South Dakota and Nebraska.
Several southern states also harvest thousands of light geese
during the conservation order period.

Overall, the USFWS says, “Since implementation of the
conservation order in 1999, the harvest of mid-continent light
geese has more than doubled, and the growth rate, as measured by
the midwinter index, has been reduced.”

Many times, the harvest during the spring conservation order has
been equal to or greater than the “regular season” hunt.

In recent years, Kelley said, the total harvest of snows, blues,
and Ross’ geese has been between 1 million and 1.5 million. Yet,
the population remains at a level similar to a decade ago. Why?

Kelley said there are a number of reasons, but one stands out:
When the light goose hatch is good, the young birds (those that
aren’t decoy-shy or wise to the electronic calls used during the
conservation order season) are the ones most often killed; the
older, more productive adults remain in the population, and
continue to reproduce.

He said the light goose population in past years dipped from 3.2
million to 2.3 million, then rebounded with a vengeance.

“There were a couple years of good productivity where they
really cranked out the babies; now we’re back to where we started,”
Kelley said.

“We’re really in a stable situation right now,” he said. “We
need two to three bad years in a row up in the Arctic.”

The best way to reduce the population, Kelley said, is to
harvest the adult breeders in the light goose flocks.

Kelley said the USFWS will continue to re-evaluate and reassess
the mid-continent light goose situation while the spring
conservation order continues. If the population continues to be
high, and habitat destruction continues, other, less desireable
alternatives might be considered. The Canada government – and other
groups – isn’t keen on direct killing of birds on their breeding
grounds.

Further, Cordts said “oiling” of eggs, which effectively
smothers the embryos, is largely financial unfeasible.

Kelley said the conservation order soon will be an option for
some Atlantic Flyway states, where greater snow goose depredation
is becoming a larger problem.

The USFWS says other species of water birds have been negatively
affected by habitat loss in the Arctic breeding grounds in Canada.
And poor habitat has an effect on light geese, too. They might nest
in the same areas, but if food isn’t available, geese will walk up
to 30 to 40 miles with their goslings in search of forage, Kelley
said. This can increase the mortality rates of young birds, he
said.

According to Kelley, if snow geese were removed from the Arctic
landscape, it still would take several decades for the habitat to
fully recover, in part because of the short growing season, and in
part because of the loss of surface moss, which promotes plant
growth.

Besides being able to use electronic calls, hunters during the
spring conservation order are allowed liberal limits and unplugged
shotguns.

Rules for the order first were offered in 1997, but were
withdrawn following threat of lawsuits. The order went into effect
with the passage of federal legislation.

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