Light Geese Conservation Season
Where Do We Stand?
Light Geese and the Conservation Order
By Chase Moore
With its inception in 1999, the Federal Light Goose Conservation Order, a program devoted to the strategic population control of snow, blue, and Ross’s geese in North America, has provided wing shooters and waterfowlers alike a unique opportunity to harvest light geese. The conservation order allows them to harvest as many of these geese as their shoulders can bear. As a result of light goose overpopulation and the denuding effect they have initiated on their own breeding grounds, these light geese simply outgrew what biologists consider to be a healthy number. By the 1990s the counterproductive increase in numbers was becoming apparent in northern regions and the abundance of geese had degraded their own fragile Arctic breeding grounds.
Basically these geese had been eating themselves out of house and home, leaving behind a barren landscape. Proving insufficient for themselves and the other wildlife, these geese had also created an uphill battle in hopes of recovering the habitat that was being lost. So as the tenth Conservation Ordered Light Goose season ended this spring, many hunters and conservationists might be left asking: “Where do we stand today on this issue?”
To better understand the progress that has been made to date regarding the overall effectiveness of the conservation order, it is necessary to reflect upon the history before the order was issued and how this problem came about in the first place. Since the mid-1970s, the total light goose number has increased more than 300 percent. In fact, over the past few decades the light goose population surveyed during the winter has reached more than 5 million. The result, insufficient habitat for themselves as well as a number of other wildlife that depend on the Arctic tundra for survival. While there doesn’t appear to be a single answer explaining the reason for the phenomenal snow goose population growth, evidence indicates that changes in winter food availability is a major factor.
In recent decades, the wintering landscapes have changed and snow geese have found that rice and grain farms along their flyways can provide nutritious buffets. Likewise, their improved diets have spawned increased brood production and adult survival rates. While this might appear to be positive, it has been counterproductive as light goose numbers have reached unmanageable marks. And the outcome has been seen in lower-than-normal body size and a decrease in gosling survival. The deteriorating habitat is also having a negative impact on local populations of other bird species.
The growing light goose population posed a serious problem for which biologists, managers, administrators and elected officials had little history or experience to guide their way. After extensive analysis of the issue, waterfowl managers decided that the most effective and economical solution for this growing problem would be through increased harvest. This presented a situation that contradicts generations of efforts dedicated to increasing and maintaining populations. Since implementation of the conservation order in 1999, the harvest of mid-continent light geese has more than doubled, and the population growth rate as measured by the midwinter index has been reduced. The management goal was to reduce the number of mid-continent light geese by 50 percent and to trim down the greater snow geese population to 500,000 birds. But in the midst of this approach, the question remains, has it been successful to the degree biologists had hoped?
“The honest to truth answer is no,” says longtime waterfowl biologist and past chief biologist for Ducks Unlimited Bruce Batt, who has spent decades studying light geese and their habitats. “While many say it is still too early to draw conclusions because we have just begun to study the effects of the measures of conservation taken, we ultimately know for a fact that the harvest targets have not been met in any year,” Batt explains. “As of now we know that hunters have not been able to take enough snow geese to actually reduce the population. Moreover, light geese continue to remain very abundant and have a negative effect because there are still too many to be sustained by the breeding grounds.”
In the midst of this overshadowing reality, the Arctic Goose Joint Venture is currently in the process of directly assessing what has been accomplished over the past decade of special efforts to reduce the numbers of snow geese.
“There is an awful lot of new information that has been collected and being analyzed to figure out what we think happened during that period and to make recommendations as to what we ought to be doing going forward,” says Batt. “The answers are not straight-forward, but it is apparent, however, that the targeted harvest rates have not been met and the populations have continued to grow – although likely slower than they would have without the management interventions.”
According to Batt, the heaviest used Arctic habitats have continued to deteriorate and some colonies have actually decreased in size because of the poor habitat available. At the same time, some colonies have continued to grow and new colonies have popped up in places that they didn’t previously exist. Batt asserts that “it is very hard to interpret what this entirely means for the geese and the Arctic ecosystems they use. It is further muddled by climate change which is apparently having its own impact on these systems – so it is complicated and still a work in progress.”
To date, the success of the conservation order has rested on the shoulders of hunters harvesting greater numbers of snow geese, and the result has been fairly meager in proportion.