Mystery solved: 1.6 million Snows in Arkansas Count
This past month, just as in every December or January for the past several decades, a small plane flew the length of the Texas coast while a wildlife biologist trained for the job looked out the aircraft's window and counted geese.
Flying a systematic route over the state's coast-rimming marshes and what originally was the extensive prairies inland from those wetlands, the plane's track took the observer over the traditional wintering grounds for almost all wild geese - snow, blue, Ross's, Canada, white-fronted - migrating down North America's Central Flyway.
That same week, a plane with a similar crew and mission - biologists counting wintering waterfowl - flew over a region of Arkansas known as the Mississippi Alluvial Valley, an area that for millennia wintered millions of ducks but, until just a few years ago, insignificant numbers of geese.
The results of those flights offer further proof of a stunningly dramatic shift in goose behavior that has left Texas' waterfowlers struggling to understand what happened and provide insight helping answer that question.
This year's mid-winter goose survey of the Texas coast estimated the wintering population of "light" or "snow" geese (snow, blue, Ross's) at approximately 181,383 birds.
The Arkansas waterfowl survey report estimated the state's Mississippi Alluvial Valley held about 1.6 million snow geese - nine times as many snow geese as are wintering on the Texas coast - and noted the number was "likely a very conservative estimate."
Over the past 15 years, the number of snow geese wintering along the Texas coast has plummeted, falling this year to just 15-20 percent of peak wintering populations seen in the late 1990s. The estimate of 181,000 snow geese is 52 percent below this past year's mid-winter estimate and 67 percent below the long-term (1948-2012) average.
Until the early 2000s, the mid-winter waterfowl surveys confirmed what everyone knew: The Texas coast was the epicenter of wintering grounds for the mid-continent's snow geese. Over those years, the snow goose population as gauged by the December surveys ranged from lows of around 600,000 to highs of about 1.2 million.
Texas' coastal prairie also was the place to find the nation's highest quality and quantity of goose hunting. In 2001, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service data, approximately 76,600 waterfowlers hunted geese in Texas and took an estimated 280,000 "light" geese.
This past hunting season, harvest surveys indicate, 31,000 waterfowlers hunted geese in Texas and took about 88,000 "light" geese.
The decline in geese wintering along the Texas coast and the commensurate decline in goose hunting participation comes against the seemingly incongruous backdrop of a booming mid-continent goose population. North America's snow goose population is at record highs. This past year's mid-winter surveys peg the mid-continent population index of snow geese a 4.61 million birds, up from about 2 million in 2000 and more than more than three times higher than during the early 1970s.
The boom in the continent's snow goose population and the decline in the number of snow geese wintering in Texas are connected.
"Geese have proven highly adaptable and highly mobile; they have wings and can go to the areas that provide them with what they need," said Kevin Hartke, waterfowl biologist for Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
Snow geese evolved to feed almost exclusively on green vegetation, roots and tubers - forage found in their natural wintering grounds in coastal marshes. But wintering birds quickly adapted to feeding on waste grain and other foods found in the rice fields that began replacing native prairie on the Texas coast in the early 1900s.
As rice production in Texas expanded, so did snow goose numbers. Rice and other agricultural grains have different nutritional benefits than native forage, Hartke said. When they have abundant, high carbohydrate grain on which to feed, their body condition improves. The birds get fat. More survive the winter and migration and are in better condition to nest and produce young.
This benefited Texas for decades. But over the past 30 years or so, rice acreage in Texas has declined while production of rice and other grains has exploded in regions up the flyway. Rice production in Texas peaked in the 1980s at about 600,000 acres and has fallen to less than 200,000.
As goose habitat in Texas has declined, it has boomed in places such as Arkansas, which today hold about 1.3 million acres of rice … and 1.6 million snow geese.
Similarly, snow geese have taken to wintering in Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri, where increases in grain production have given the geese no reason to migrate further south.
"The reasons for the decline in snow geese wintering in the Texas coastal zone are complicated, and I don't think there's really just one thing that's driving it," said Hartke, who has been the guy in the plane counting Texas geese during the mid-winter survey since 2005. "But the availability of food is, I believe, one of the major reasons for the shift."
Hard to fathom
Whatever the reason or reasons, the decline in the number of geese coming to their traditional wintering areas on the Texas coast has been hard to comprehend and accept for Texans who see the birds as a crucial part of their natural heritage and quality of life.
"It's been very painful to watch - heartbreaking, really," said Bill Stransky, a lifelong goose hunter who has made creation, restoration and improvement of wetland habitat benefiting geese and other wetland-dependent wildlife his life's work. "I would never have thought I could drive 100 miles on Highway 59 this time of year and not see a goose."
Even with the steep decline in wintering goose numbers, there are pockets along the coast where the birds still congregate in large numbers and where waterfowlers can enjoy a fine morning of goose hunting. But, like the big waterfowl, those places are much fewer in number and harder to find than they were just a few years ago
Shannon's Column in today's Chronicle.