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Snow Geese (Chen caerulescens) are adorable, even if they are loud and congregate in huge flocks. The story of the Snow Goose is a real roller-coaster. Their numbers once dropped so low that hunting them was prohibited. Today, our government is trying to decide how best to reduce their population. What happened? I’ll tell you…
Once upon a time, snow geese populations were unremarkable. I’ve spent a shockingly long time reviewing population data from the US Fish & Wildlife Service and Cornell’s Avian Knowledge Network. I’ll summarize it for you: snow geese numbers have been increasing significantly in North America since about 1960 (population data is presented in terms of different locations and flyways). The US FWS issued its Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) on Light Goose Management in June, 2007. The Executive Summary is a short read, but the study is extensive, at a whopping 254 pages. There is also a 10 page Q&A document that I found very informative.
The biggest question I had was, “Why are there so many Snow Geese, that we have to reduce their numbers rather than protect them?” Here is the short list of answers from the Q&A document:
- Increased food supply – mostly from our farming activities. Apparently we have a habit of draining coastal wetlands and planting crops instead. The geese aren’t complaining because now they have ample food to help them survive the winter and migration, leading to more breeding pairs in the spring.
- Wildlife refuges – help sustain snow geese along with other birds and wildlife.
- Hunting hasn’t kept up – even though laws were passed in 1999 that gave hunters extra advantages, like electronic calls and unplugged shotgun shells, they haven’t single-handedly controlled the snow goose population.
- Climate – warming from the 1960’s and 1970’s – prompted a snow goose baby boom.
- Increased life span – the snow geese are living longer and producing more goslings.
The next question I pondered was, “So they are doing well…what’s the problem?” According to the FEIS, the geese are overgrazing large swaths of habitat to the extent that the habitat cannot recover. This is bad for other birds, flora and fauna with whom the snow geese share the habitats. This got my attention.
Then I thought, “Well, what about their natural predators?” That topic is touched on in the Q&A, but after delving into the full FEIS, I found the whole truth. The FEIS says that most predation of snow geese occurs on the eggs and the young – not the adults. So, most predation occurs on the breeding grounds, which is far north – arctic areas. The list of predators included other birds and mammals, like polar bears, wolves, coyotes, black bears, and caribou. Then, to quote:
“The nesting period in the Arctic typically is
short and highly synchronized among individuals. The rapid increase in eggs and young available to
predators during the nesting season likely overwhelms the ability of predator species to take full advantage of
the new food supply (Sovada et al. 2001). Therefore, predation likely has little potential to limit growth of
most light goose populations and we chose not to analyze this alternative.”
I would like to point out the use of the word, “likely,” and the fact that this alternative was not analyzed. I’ll bet the polar bears, wolves, and other animals would like to weigh in on the subject.
The goose in the image above has been banded with a coded neck band, and probably a matching leg band. If I could make out the code on the band, I could report my sighting of this little fella to the organization who banded him. No matter how many times I turned my laptop sideways and stared hard at the band, I got nothin’.
I didn’t know anything about the snow goose overpopulation problem when I first started to write this article, more than a week ago. I’m glad to know about this, and to finally wrap up my research (obsession).
I can tell you this, from my own personal experience…I am really glad that I was able to witness such a large, beautiful flock of snow geese. The sound of the flock lifting off en mass was thunderous and thrillingly heart-pounding. I would have cried if even one goose fell to the ground from someone’s effort to reduce their numbers. I even felt sorry for the one with the neck band, imagining that the band was choking him. I’m torn at the idea that precious arctic habitat is imperiled by the geese, and wish that “nature” could just balance everything out.
My plan? Do what I can to protect and enjoy nature, remember that I can’t save the world, but know that whatever I can do helps, and encourage others to do the same!
By the way, Snow Geese were first honored on the Federal Duck Stamp in the 1947-1948 hunting season, and again in 1988-1989. Snow geese were most recently chosen for the 2003-2004 season, honoring 100 years of conservation efforts marked by the establishment of the National Wildlife Refuge system in 1903.