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Snow Goose Success Threatens Arctic Habitat

Angry cattle ranchers ranted about “hoofed locusts” when grazing sheep stripped Western rangelands years ago. Today snow geese are earning a similar nickname – the hungry birds are turning their breeding grounds around Hudson”s Bay into deserts. The geese are just doing what they”ve always done, but there are a lot more of them today. Refuges and changes in the agricultural landscape have widened the winter-survival bottleneck, which used to keep snow goose populations at lower levels.

The Mid-Continent snow goose population had about 800,000 birds in 1969. It numbers about 3 million today, growing at about 5 percent annually. That”s more than the plant life in the fragile arctic habitat can support, according to Don Rusch, a wildlife ecologist at UW-Madison”s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. Rusch is a member of the Arctic Goose Habitat Working Group, a U.S./Canadian consortium of wildlife biologists and other specialists formed in 1995 to develop solutions to the problem.

“We view this as being beyond a simple habitat problem and more on the scale of an ”ecosystem in peril,”” the group concluded. “A ”trophic cascade” of events, resulting from over-grazing and grubbing by some Arctic geese, creates soil salinity and moisture conditions that lead to desertification of the affected Arctic landscapes. These habitats will not likely regain their original plant communities for many decades into the next millennium. The most degraded of these habitats will likely never recover.”

As head of the Wisconsin Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit, Rusch has been studying geese in Canada since 1970, and has watched the snow goose problem develop. Without intervention, one of two things will happen, he says: snow goose populations will crash, with recovery taking decades due to the poor condition of the arctic habitat; or populations will stay high, destroying a major component of the arctic ecosystem. The result would be millions of geese in poor physical condition, living in “slum” conditions on their breeding grounds.

To avoid disaster, the group determined that the Mid-Continent snow goose population must be reduced to half of its current size by 2005, which requires a 10-percent reduction per year between now and then.

While looking at all control measures (including poison and aerial hunting), the group recommended only solutions that maintained respect for the birds, and avoided measures that would result in wasted geese. “We followed two guiding principles – traditional standards of scientific scrutiny and objectivity, and recognition that the birds are valuable natural resources, as game animals and as food,” Rusch says.

The group is working to involve state, provincial, and federal wildlife agencies, hunters, non-hunters, humane societies, animal welfare groups, the Audubon Society and others. It sponsored a trip to Churchill, Manitoba in Aug. 1997 to give people a first-hand look at the goose damage.

Snow geese are long-lived birds, and effective control measures must reduce the numbers of breeding adults. This means tripling the harvest rate of adults from 5 percent to 15 percent in order to reduce total population by 10 percent per year, according to Rusch.

The group proposed to the flyway councils (which set hunting regulations) a variety of alternatives for increasing the harvest of snows:

* Late-season hunting up to March 10, as permitted by the current Migratory Bird Treaty.
* Changes in the treaty to allow spring hunting after March 10.
* Rule changes legalizing electronic calling, baiting, and live decoys.
* Increase subsistence harvest by natives in the far North, perhaps by providing subsidies to encourage people to take more birds — e.g. travel allowances to allow them to get to the birds.
* Increase hunting opportunities on reserves and refuges.
* Reciprocal snow goose hunting licenses honored from state to state, province to province and country to country.
* Liberalize bag limits and expand shooting hours.

So far, the flyway councils have approved hunting until March 10, increases in bag/possession limits, liberalized hunting methods, and more hunting on refuges; they have also started work on changes in the treaty to allow hunting after March 10.

The proposals face some obstacles. International politics, for example, will make amending the treaty time-consuming and difficult. Logistics pose another problem: can hunters kill enough birds? Maybe not. In Manitoba, where the bag limit is 10 birds, the average kill per season is 1.5 birds/hunter.

“Nobody thinks there is a single magic bullet that will allow hunters to kill more birds. It will take a combination of imaginative approaches and bold regulatory changes,” Rusch admits. The alternative – doing nothing – will result in changes in the arctic landscape that will destroy plant life, displace wildlife, and upset a lot of people.