Snow goose migration ahead of typical pace

Bismarck, N.D. — Unless a March snowstorm or some serious cold weather descends upon the Upper Midwest, the best of the spring snow goose season in the United States is likely over.  

As of Monday, the bulk of the migration had moved out of South Dakota and was well into North Dakota and parts of prairie Canada, according to several sources in the Central Flyway. Unseasonably warm weather and an advancing snow line into Canada have lit the migration’s fuse. In fact, officials say this year’s migration is roughly three weeks ahead of schedule. 

“It’s going to cool off a little this week, although I don’t know if it will be cool enough to check the migration up in a big way or at all,” John Devney, vice president of U.S. policy for the Delta Waterfowl Foundation in Bismarck, said Monday. “The weather may slow it up a little bit, but it’s obvious the main push of the migration is well ahead of schedule.” 

Devney, who noted Delta’s Sioux Falls chapter had to cancel a youth snow goose hunt last weekend because of a lack of birds, said as of last Sunday “big flocks” of snows and blues were 20 miles from the Canadian border and likely pushing farther north. 

“The snow line has vanished because of the warm weather,” he said. “In years past, a push of cold weather has pushed birds back south. I don’t know what will happen this year. As of right now, no one does.” 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service authorized the first-ever spring light goose hunt in 1999 to trim the burgeoning mid-continent flock of lesser snow geese (snows, blues, and Ross’ geese). Technically called a “conservation order,” the spring hunt was designed to keep the massive flock from destroying its fragile arctic breeding grounds in Canada. The furious pace of this year’s migration has many waterfowlers wondering if they’ll have time to get out.

“I haven’t hunted at all, and I know I’m not alone,” said Devney, noting he’s hunted the spring season in Canada in past years and had good success. 

To illustrate the pace of the migration, consider: Last weekend, Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge near Aberdeen in northwest South Dakota – a key spring stopover point for migrating snows and blues – had 250,000 to 300,000 geese staging there. As of Monday, those birds had already moved into North Dakota and perhaps points farther north, said Don Soderlund, wildlife biologist with the USFWS at Sand Lake.

“The main front of the migration has already moved through and it went quick,” he said. “Our numbers built up very quickly – we went from 20,000 birds to 300,000 in three days, which is pretty amazing when you consider the bulk is already gone.” 

Soderlund said Monday there are still pockets of snows and blues in South Dakota. 

“There are certainly still some huntable flocks around,” he said. “But guys will have to do a lot more scouting to find them. Geese are stopping to fuel up and then they’re moving out. Hunters haven’t had the luxury of hunting the same field day after day like other years.” 

Similarly, last weekend a massive influx of snows and blues (an estimated 500,000 to 700,000, according to some reports) were staging at Tewaukon National Wildlife Refuge near Cayuga, N.D., in the southeast part of the state. As of Monday, some of the birds had migrated north, although heavy fog had kept many in and around the refuge. 

“They could all leave tomorrow, you just don’t know,” said Kent Sundseth, refuge manager.

According to the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, the bulk of the migration was moving through the state last weekend, with southerly winds, temperatures in the mid-70s, and no snow line to hold the birds. Many have already entered prairie Canada, sources say. The spring snow goose migration tends to unfold farther east in the state than in fall. According to Game and Fish, birds generally arrive in the southeastern part of the state and spread north and northeast through the Valley City, Jamestown, Devils Lake, Rugby areas.  

Devney said waterfowlers have historically had good luck hunting the tail end of the migration. 

“We know the adults are pushing hard to the breeding grounds and what juveniles there are will bring up the rear,” Devney said. “If you can find those birds and establish a pattern like you were hunting Canada geese, you can do well. It takes a lot less decoys, too.” 

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