Snow geese still hurting habitat
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) - A century after the snow goose teetered near extinction, the winged waterfowl are presenting quite a different dilemma for many scientists and nature lovers.
There are way too many of them, prompting the federal government to approve expanding hunting methods and a longer season for snow geese in hopes of eventually cutting in half a population that at one time was too small largely because of hunting.
There are now 5 million geese in just the Central and Mississippi flyways—the high-altitude highways by which the birds migrate from wintering grounds in the U.S. to spring nesting areas in Canada. It’s an increase of 300 percent since the mid-70s, according to federal data. Another 1 million snow geese use the Atlantic flyway.
The overpopulation has created a virtual goose gridlock on the ground, and scientists especially fear the potential ecological risk on the delicate nesting habitats.
“At some point, the whole system will collapse. Basically, the habitat is out of control,” said Robert Rockwell, a population biologist with the Department of Ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regulations approved for this spring had been provisionally in place since 1999 in the central United States. Federal officials and scientists hope the efforts are working, with the snow goose harvest up and population growth rates down.
This year, the same regulations were put into effect for the Atlantic flyway, which stretches from the coastal wintering grounds in the Carolinas, Maryland and Delaware, to the spring nesting areas in northern Canada. The regulations also allow states to issue a “conservation order” to extend hunting seasons.
The extended hunt ended April 1 in Pennsylvania, with an April 15 cutoff date in other Northeastern states including New York and Vermont.
It’s all part of an effort to stem a twentyfold increase in the population in the Atlantic flyway since the 1960s.
The new goal: Cut the populations in half to help alleviate pressure on the fragile breeding habitat in northern Canada.
Portions of breeding grounds have been damaged to the point that it may take decades to recover, and the geese are also showing lower-than-normal body size and suffering a decrease in gosling survival due to habitat degradation, the U.S. Fish and Wildife Service said.
The health of other birds that share the nesting areas may be affected, too.
Also at risk, though to a lesser extent, are natural marsh habitats such as those on the Atlantic coast, as well as farmland along the flyways. The geese raid winter wheat fields for food on the long trip back to Canada in late winter and early spring to breed.
But most experts point to the geese’s fragile arctic breeding grounds as the biggest concern.
Rockwell also directs the snow goose research program at LaPerouse Bay in Manitoba, as part of the Hudson Bay Project. Geese breeding in the area typically winter in the central United States.
The group is dedicated to a long-term study of Arctic coastal tundra ecosystems. It says it has documented damage to a salt marsh by the geese, which root out and feed on sprouting plants during spring flooding.
In the so-called grubbing, geese open up plant patches to greater evaporation and erosion and remove growing parts. Unchecked, it can strip an area of vegetation.
“The only way to reduce the impact is to reduce the size of the population,” Rockwell said.
Experts place most of the blame on humans.
The goose population declined in the 1800s largely because of hunting, and there were only about 2,000 to 3,000 snow geese in North American in 1900.
The Migratory Bird Act of 1916 helped reverse the losses, according to the National Audubon Society.
In the Atlantic flyway, the snow goose population had risen to about 60,000 by the 1960s.
Hunting on a limited scale was allowed again in 1975. The goose population has boomed since then thanks in part to increased access to waste grain and other farm crops on migration routes.
In the 1970s, marshlands that the geese could use for wintering homes were drained for housing developments, pushing the waterfowl farther inland to look for other food sources. Farm fields became an attractive destination, along with cooling ponds for nuclear power plants.
“Snow geese are unbelievable opportunists,” Rockwell said. “They ride this wave of protein further and further north.”
Said David Haskell, a biology professor, who teaches ornithology at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., “The very reason that the snow goose population is booming is because we’ve made it very easy for them in the winter time. ... There’s just a lot more feeding areas for them as we’ve remade the landscape.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service rules allow the use of expanded hunting measures such as electronic calls and unplugged shotguns to make it easier to track down geese.
Atlantic flyway states are also allowed to extend the snow goose season through a conservation order. In Pennsylvania, for instance, the 107-day season previously ended on March 10 by federal rule. But that was a time when geese just started to make their trek north from the Delaware coast.
With federal approval, the state extended the season to April 1, when most geese are still making their way north.
Hunting snow geese can be challenging because the waterfowl travel in flocks of up to 1,000 at a time. The geese are fickle, too, and tend to be lured only into blinds that include as many fake geese.
That makes the recent hunting allowances appealing to expert goose hunters in the Atlantic states, said Andy Dively, a member of the Susquehanna Waterfowlers Association in central Pennsylvania. He represents the group at meetings of the Atlantic Flyway Council, which is composed primarily of government officials and wildlife researchers.
“They are the wariest of waterfowl,” Dively said. “More eyes scrutinizing what you’re doing. ... Whatever one decides to do, they all decide to do, like 1,000 birds with one mind.”