Hunter Management In Practice: The Snow Goose

How hunting can save a population in crisis

(Header photo courtesy: flyways.us)

Snowgoose1

A common ploy among hunting advocates is to use the rebuttal that “hunting is management”. The answer has become almost automatic among the hunting community. You don’t really need to know what the hell your talking about, but as long as you stick to the management argument you should be good.

“How is killing wildlife managing wildlife? Can’t they just run their own course?”

A degree in wildlife management or ecology will help answer this one, but unfortunately many hunters are without a degree in the sciences and left helpless in their refute. If you find yourself in this position, or if you are an insatiable skeptic of the management argument, look up. There may be a vortex of white-coated geese to provide testament.

Oie Blanche

The snow goose, or Oie Blanche, as the French on the Louisiana coast once called them, was not always the prolific species it is today. Once nearly eradicated by the market hunting rush, the snow goose found itself imperiled with many of its waterfowl cousins. The greater snow goose was reduced to a mere 3,000 birds worldwide by the early 20th century, and it is of no coincidence that in 1916, the Migratory Bird Treaty (not signed as an Act until 1918) banned snow goose hunting in the eastern U.S. outright.

It took six decades for the snow goose population to rebound accordingly. The salt marshes of the east welcomed the once familiar occupant, and American’s throughout the country looked up at the fall and spring migration to find snow geese flying in the distance, in the tens and sometimes thousands. The Atlantic Flyway Council held its 1975 meeting in Atlantic City, New Jersey and suggested that the snow goose season be reopened. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service followed suit, and reopened the snow goose season for the first time in nearly sixty years.

Today, we find Oie Blanche from as south as south as Mexico to the Canadian arctic.

A Conservation Story Too Successful

American hunters embraced their rejoined quarry with open arms, and snow goose hunting became a key pursuit in the eyes of the waterfowler. The birds were said to be complacent after sixty years of protection and were easy to decoy. The waters of the Chesapeake and Delaware Bay’s were a favorite among many snow goose hunters, but as far south as the Carolina’s hunters were getting their snow goose fill.

While hunters reveled in the reopened season, snow geese were thriving with their sixty year safety buffer and finding opportunity in America’s landscape. Primarily, the snow geese were taking advantage of a fairly new food source: waste grain. Like many other species of waterfowl, snow geese of the mid-20th century were finding ample opportunities to feed in America’s increasingly agricultural landscape. Their fecundity and adaptability allowed their population to boom exponentially, and just three decades after the reopening of the snow goose season in 1975, their large population size hit the main stream media for its destruction of the Arctic.

Saving Snow Geese From Themselves

The feeding habits of a snow goose is what makes them so destructive. They feed exclusively on plant material, feeding over 50% of the day on agricultural grains or wetland aquatic vegetation. While the now abundant snow geese became an agricultural pest for famers throughout America, they also became a primary contributor to wetland destruction. When feeding on salt marsh, or in their arctic breeding habitats in the northern reaches of Canada and the Hudson Bay coast, the snow goose uses its serrated bill to pry out shoots of aquatic plants ripping up the soil it sat in. More often, however, the snow goose would rather grub underground, unearthing and ripping at root and rhizome systems that not only secure the mud and soil in place, but also give rise to the plants and thick vegetation needed for the survival of other migratory birds.

The semi-palmated sandpiper breeds in the same area as the snow goose. The piper depends on thick vegetation to conceal themselves, their nests, and their offspring from predators. Snow geese have destroyed much of the semi-palmated sandpipers historical breeding grounds through their feeding practices, while also attracting predators such as fox through their large and unavoidable numbers. While the semi-palmated sandpiper is now listed as a species near-threatened to extinction by the IUCN, the habitat destruction has also had wide spread implications on savannah sparrows, Canadian geese, scaup, shoveler, and brant, who are now facing a long hard recovery of their own right.

Wildlife managers and biologists picked up on the destruction in the 1990’s, when the Light Goose Conservation Order (LGCO) was brought to congress. This order was aimed at reducing the snow goose population by half to not only ensure the health of snow geese themselves (gosling sizes had been recorded as reducing in the face of decreased feed and overabundance, and disease became a main concern in the dense groups of foraging snow geese), but also the migratory birds and fragile ecosystem balances that depended on the arctic breeding habitat.

The LGCO aimed to use hunters as a management tool. When the Duck’s Unlimited Chief Biologist Dr. Bruce Batt pitched the idea to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, he stated that “Hunting is a socially acceptable pastime, hunters are educated in the proper methods and they could help our cause at basically no cost to the government or private conservation organizations.”

The idea was to make an exception to the hunting regulations that thwarted the destruction of market hunting in the early 1900’s, but this time to save snow geese from themselves. By allowing hunters liberal hunting seasons in the form of increased bag limits and longer season dates, the snow goose population could be picked off in a sustainable manner, relieving the arctic breeding habitat of intense feeding pressure.

The LGCO was fought by the Humane Society, but was ultimately mandated in 1999.

 

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Snow geese on the Atlantic City marsh

 

Conservation Order

The snow goose population today is well over 5 million birds strong and increasing at 5% each year. The greater snow goose population, which was once at 3,000 in the early 1900’s, is now as many as 700,000 birds. Hunters, in an opportunity not only to indulge in one of the most intense, luxurious, and action-packed waterfowl hunts of their life but also to protect a multitude of species including the snow goose itself, are now allowed liberal hunting seasons in order to decrease the population. In New Jersey,  the regular hunting season is the maximum days allowed under federal framework, at 107 days. Directly after the 107 day regular season (literally the day after) begins the Conservation Order season, spanning 51 days from February 16th to April 8th. Along the Atlantic seaboard and throughout the country similar conservation strategies are in place. In Virginia, the regular season spans from October 17th until January 31st, and again for Conservation order from Febuary 1st to April 5th.

The bag limit in states such as Jersey has jumped from 15 birds to 25 during the regular season, with no limit during the Conservation Order. The Conservation Order also allows states to provide liberal regulations such as use of electronic callers, shooting a half hour past sunset, and unplugged shotguns.

The use of a hunter driven Conservation Order season has helped impede the snow goose population boom, albeit slightly. A major hurdle for the Conservation Order season is hunter recruitment. The more hunters that participate, the more fuel the initiative has in reaching its goal, reducing the population, and saving arctic habitats.

Not only is snow goose hunting one of the most thrilling forms of waterfowl hunting (a vortex of snow geese flying overhead is a sight to behold), but also it gives more purpose to the pursuit. It may seem counter intuitive that killing is a form of managing a species for its own survival, some hunters don’t truly understand the concept and many anti-hunters cling to this notion, but the snow goose is a case in point.

Give it a stab. Find a group of buddies and head out in search of snow goose this season, and realize that any good hunt you may have will have implications far more important than a proper waterfowler’s meal.

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