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Early geese
Dennis Anderson, Star Tribune
August 29, 2004 ANDY0829

Goose hunters often are a breed apart, even from duck hunters. For good reason. The sight of big birds silhouetted against a rising sun, coming to a call and descending upon decoys, is uniquely thrilling.

Saturday, when Minnesota's Early Goose Season opens, hunters throughout Minnesota will chance to witness just such a sight, hunkered in blinds or along fencelines.

For them, summer ends and fall begins amid these surroundings.

Yet this annual process suggests a sort of stability that belies the ever-changing status of Minnesota's two primary Canada goose populations.

The Eastern Prairie Population (EPP) of Canada geese, for instance, nests not in Minnesota but along Hudson Bay, Manitoba, in an area generally between Churchill and York Factory.

That population suffered a terrible nesting season and is not doing well this year.

By contrast, Minnesota's Giant Canada geese, a different subspecies altogether, nest in the state, and these birds generally are very abundant -- too abundant, some would argue, in certain locations.

It is Giant Canada geese that the early season targets.

How fluid are Minnesota's Canada goose populations?

Thirty years ago, Lac qui Parle Wildlife Management Area in west-central Minnesota was Ground Zero for goose hunting in Minnesota.

Each fall, EPP honkers by the tens of thousands descended there, many flying non-stop from Oak Hammock marsh in Manitoba.

Typically, the geese stayed at Lac qui Parle until cold weather pushed them to Sand Lake, Mo., their primary wintering area.

Today, only a relative handful of EPP geese stop at Lac qui Parle. And many that do, rather than continuing to Missouri, instead fly to Illinois, Kansas and even Oklahoma.

Moreover, many EPP geese that once dropped down at Lac qui Parle now stay in suburban Winnipeg, Manitoba, until freezing weather chases them out. Their extended stay there is one reason Manitoba hunters now account for about 35 percent of EPP geese harvested each year, with Minnesota hunters felling another 25 percent and those in Missouri, 10 percent.

Not that Minnesota hunters are short of Canada geese.

Last year's harvest in the state of 282,000 honkers was a record, and the most harvested by hunters in any state.

Of these, EPP geese represented only about 9 percent, with the balance being Giant Canadas.

Giant Canadas represent a remarkable wildlife management story.

Once thought extinct, a remnant population of the birds was found in Rochester, Minn., near the middle of the last century.

At the time, wildlife managers hoped to encourage expansion of the Giant Canada's range by transplanting birds throughout Minnesota and other states.

The plan worked too well.

Unlike ducks, which often fall victim to predators and which need relatively specific food sources and nesting conditions, Giant Canadas proved incredibly adaptable and resourceful.

Everywhere they went, they proliferated -- including golf courses, beaches and boat docks, where today they are considered nuisances.

In retrospect, it's difficult to believe that as recently as the 1980s the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources was still allowing Giant Canada geese to be translocated from the Twin Cities to towns in northern Minnesota, where chances for their survival, wildlife officials thought at the time, were problematic.

Today, any city official virtually anywhere in the country who accepted a load of Canada geese for release likely would be run out of town.

Before "Early" and "Late" (December) goose hunts were offered in Minnesota as ways to thin the state's burgeoning Giant Canada goose population, there was only a "Metro Goose Hunt."

Again, this occurred as recently as the 1980s, when Giant Canada geese proliferated in Minnesota only in the Twin Cities.

But the birds adapted, and today the "Metro Goose Hunt" is an Early Goose Hunt held virtually statewide until Sept. 22 -- with generous limits offered.

Beginning Saturday, most Minnesota Early Goose hunters can take five geese a day, perhaps the highest such limit in the nation.

Still, says DNR goose specialist Steve Maxson, stationed in Bemidji, "Our statewide numbers continue to increase, though perhaps not quite as fast as they did previously. We think we're seeing the rate of increase start to slow."

Absent hunting pressure, Maxson said, Giant Canada geese in the state would expand well beyond their present numbers.

Still, wildlife managers allow the Early Goose Season to run only a short time in September, so migratory EPP geese are not inadvertently killed.

Unlike the state's giant Canada geese, which is a resident population managed by Minnesota alone, EPP birds are cooperatively managed with Manitoba and various states to the south.

Each has an interest in sustaining the EPP population at a healthy level, particularly in years like this, when nesting success was poor.

How poor?

Due to a late spring along Hudson Bay, many EPP geese didn't bother nesting at all. Those that did averaged only about two eggs per nest, and only about 20 percent of those hatched.

As a result, virtually all EPP birds that migrate through Minnesota this fall will be adults -- and any loss of these birds to hunting or other causes represents a proportionate loss to the breeding population. Thus this quandary facing Maxson and his DNR colleagues this fall:

How best to manage Minnesota's burgeoning Giant Canada goose population while simultaneously co-managing with other states and provinces a troubled EPP Canada goose population?

One way is to offer an Early Goose Season nearly statewide to thin the ranks of Giant Canada geese before EPP migrants enter the state.

Another is to hope EPP birds aren't hit too hard anywhere they fly, or stage, this fall, perhaps especially in Manitoba.

"We have expressed our concern to Manitoba that this year's EPP flock should not be overharvested," Maxson said. "They're saying they might lower their limits next year, but perhaps not this year."

Wildlife managers also are hoping for better weather in Manitoba next spring.

"When birds nest as far north as the EPP flock does," Maxson said, "there are going to be springs when nesting success is poor."

Dennis Anderson is at

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