Waterfowl hunting in North America is carefully regulated. The Migratory Bird Protection Act and other legislation is there to make sure that harvest by humans does not damage populations of ducks and geese. For over a hundred years now spring hunting has been banned, as well of hunting with live decoys and shotguns bigger than 10 gauge. The fall season is limited in length, and strict bag limits are in place, set for each species of ducks and geese depending on their number. You can’t hunt waterfowl with a shotgun that holds more than three rounds, and can use only non-toxic pellets. Electronic calls are mostly banned.
But there is one area of waterfowl hunting where, it looks like, this does not apply. Spring season? You bet! The limit? Might have to get another freezer! Electronic call? Take two! Magazine capacity? As many as you can fit in that extension! This is all about light geese, but is it an overlook of wildlife managers, or an environmental necessity?
As a matter of fact, ornithologists (the eggheads that study birds instead of shooting them like normal people – just kidding, Professor!) do have concerns about the harvest figures of light geese. They think the hunters don’t kill enough.
“Light geese” is the collective name for three varieties of North American geese: the Ross goose, the greater snow goose, and the lesser snow goose. They get their name from their color – mostly white, but all species of light geese have a blue morph, too. They nest in big colonies way down in the Arctic salt marshes and the tundra, and spend their winters in the saltwater bays and rice fields on the southern coasts of the Pacific and the Atlantic. Their migration routes cross the major part of the Lower 48, and every Canadian province, although they’re more abundant in some localities than others.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but by the early XX century it appeared that commercial harvest and habitat loss contracted light geese numbers to where they were almost endangered (what North American game bird or animal didn’t suffer similar fate?). Some modern researchers question this – the truth is that we don’t know exactly how many snow geese there were before the arrival of immigrants from Europe. Early explorers’ accounts often mention the sky going black with birds, but these accounts are not entirely objective and scientific. However, a century ago they were easy to believe, so the standard solution (“let’s just ban hunting and forget about the whole affair for now”) was applied.
By 1950s it became obvious that the light geese were no longer threatened – in fact, “abundant” was a more accurate term. A conservative season was opened, and that seemed keep the geese numbers on a stable, sustainable yet safe, levels – until 1970s, when they began to multiply again. More liberal seasons and bag limits put another harness on their growth, but not for long. By 1995 researchers were concerned that light geese were too numerous for their nesting grounds. A series of studies were carried out in the late 1990s, and confirmed the original suspicions.
Nobody is 100% sure why light geese baby boom took place. The most likely suspect is agriculture. It created a nearly unlimited food source for wintering snow geese in the first place, and the major surges in light geese numbers follow introduction of new seeds and technologies that boost the bushel per hectare ratio. New wintering opportunities provided by warmer climate and especially rice fields helped more birds survive winters and accumulate enough fat for successful reproduction; in the meantime, changes of behavior along with more wetland protection areas allowed the birds to escape hunting pressure. But whatever the reason, one thing is clear: there are too many light geese in North America, especially the lesser snow geese.
Today there’s an estimated 15 million lesser snow geese in North America, and that’s bad news for other birds and mammals of the Arctic, including light geese themselves and possibly excluding polar bears. Geese need lots of food to lay eggs and raise their young. They feed on a variety of sedges, grasses, grains and plants living in semi-aquatic, wet soil areas. When they dig up the roots of plants growing on their arctic breeding grounds, they expose the mud, which increases the evaporation rate, in turn causing a salt crust to form. These areas can get so damaged that any regrowth is very difficult. Some such areas are so big now that they can be seen by satellites. All of this long lasting damage ends up affecting everyone in the food chain.
So what’s the problem, an average modern urban person may ask, you know, natural selection, evolution, and everything, Nature is wise, surely it can think of anything?
Er… not quite.
True, the problem will take care of itself eventually. For instance, if ice caps keep melting, polar bears may have to leave the ice fields and come ashore earlier in spring, and could find ready lunch in snow goose eggs, but with three conditionals in one sentence, you be the judge how likely it is. A much more certain outcome is that light geese continue to multiply until they so degrade their nesting grounds that they have nowhere to nest, and go extinct, taking other geese, lemmings, caribou, and other creatures with them. Of course, a new ecosystem will eventually appear, as new species evolve. On planetary time scale, it will happen very quickly – in only a few thousand years.
So, if we humans don’t want to bet on global warming and polar bears, nor wait a thousand years for the new tundra ecosystem, we’ve got to do something. Essentially, there’s only one option – to kill some of the birds to save the rest, and the world as they know it. The question is how to get about to it. We could cull geese – carbon monoxide poisoning is a clean and efficient method, extensively practiced in Europe. But it will cost loads of money, to say nothing of wasting such beautiful creatures. The alternative is – you guessed it – hunting. The best thing about this option is that it won’t cost a penny of public money. On the contrary, license sales and the taxes on hunting related stuff will make a great contribution to the funds used for wildlife protection. That’s how North American Conservation Model works.
Wildlife managers looked up books and manuals, and devised a set of ultra high efficient measures for contracting the numbers of light geese, known as the Light Goose Conservation Order. They used just about everything their books said will eradicate a species in half about no time, except big bore shotguns and live decoys. And that, I guess, only because nobody remembers how to breed the birds anymore, and the few remaining 8’s and 4’s are too collectable for serious waterfowling. In all other respect it’s as deregulated as it can possibly get north of Mexico. Unlimited magazine capacity. Generous bag limits, and in many states no limits at all. Electronic calls and decoys. And the biggest scare of all bird protectors – the spring season!
It stands to reason that spring season on monogamous birds is extremely harmful – every bird killed is a nest lost. Or so they say. Some early research suggested that a spring season dramatically decreased reproduction success because the stress it gives to female geese doesn’t allow them to accumulate enough fat for egg-laying. Later studies, however, didn’t confirm these findings. Apparently, it works only immediately after the introduction of the seasons, then the birds adjust and go on as if nothing happens.
This, at least, is the case with the lesser snow geese. The greater snow goose population answered the measures well enough, the population is down to acceptable levels (600-700 thousand birds), and can be quoted as a great conservation success. The Ross geese are for reasons unknown nearly immune to hunting pressure one way or the other. But the lesser snow geese are going out of control. The latest studies suggest that to stop their population growth hunters need to kill well over a million of them a year. But they fail to, and further liberalization of hunting seasons, bag limits, and allowed practices ain’t gonna help. For a very strange reason.
Hunters don’t want to kill so many.
In fact, hunters aren’t killing as many light geese as they are permitted to kill under current regulations. And they sure won’t be harvesting larger numbers even if the law said they could. The harvest figures are actually decreasing, and the peak harvests in fact date back to the years with more strict rules and regulations.
This is a very important story. The general public mostly thinks of hunters as extermination machines who want nothing but to kill kill kill kill kill, and who would wipe out wildlife entirely down to the last quail hen on every each continent if the animal rights groups didn’t harass their Facebook pages. The truth is, when the biologists actually want hunters to exercise their alleged exterminating powers to stop the growth of an overpopulated species, oops! The power doesn’t seem to be there!
The explanation lies in the very nature of hunting. For the fill-the-freezer kind of us, the opportunity to bag more can only stretch so far. It is limited by ability to process, preserve and consume food (if you don’t get it, pluck and gut a dozen geese. Then find room for them in an average fridge. Then eat a goose every weekend for three months). And even aside from laws against wanton waste, very few hunters would actually be happy to kill an animal and not see it used anyhow. They suffer too much strain, expense, and Facebook bullying to bear their harvest going to waste.
In case of the much condemned practice of “hunting for sport” – provided hunting can be called a sport – different motivators lead to a similar result. To be enjoyable, a sport must be complicated enough. When there’s no challenge, people quickly become bored. They seek for ways to make the task harder – for instance, trading a rifle for a bow – and when they can’t, they simply lay down their camo-dipped Benellis and switch to flyfishing. This is not to say that light geese hunting is easy, but of this later.
This capacity for self-limitation is a fact that has been noticed long ago. But the light goose story provides another bit of incontrovertible evidence that the relation between human hunters and game animals is more complex than a common picture of the Terminator vs. the helpless Sarah Connor from the original 1984 movie. Instead, it mostly follows the regular predator-prey patterns, and it goes both ways. Part of the explanation why snow goose harvests decrease lie in the fact that the birds adapt to hunting pressure, shift their migration routes and feeding patterns, and so escape the hunter’s bag.
More birds means not only better chances to bag, but also bigger flocks. And bigger flocks are much more difficult to fool. It takes hundreds of dekes, impeccable calling, and expert knowledge of terrain. The spring migration of light geese is a race over who can take better nesting areas, the birds push it hard, so the flock you’ve scouted this weekend may be long gone North by next Friday.
This is why, if you want to take up light geese hunting, your best bet is to start with an experienced guide. The few hundred dollars you’ll pay will buy you not only great hunting, but also a few season’s worth of experience (if you are capable of learning by observation and imitation, that is). Discover your goose hunting opportunities on BookYourHunt!
If you liked this story, you may also like:
- The Quiet Call of the Biggest Grouse
- What can I hunt in spring
- Does Hunting Have a Bad Effect on the Gene Pool?