BRAINERD, Minn. (AP) -- Not long ago a spring goose season would have been unthinkable. The basic tenets of wildlife conservation prohibit the hunting of birds just before breeding season.
Today spring goose hunting is deemed necessary. Nature and wildlife conservation have taken an unexpected turn.
For centuries the light goose population, including snow, blue and Ross's geese, chugged along at stable levels. But in the early 1960s an event on the birds' wintering grounds on the Gulf Coast marshes of Louisiana and Texas brought big changes.
''A hurricane wreaked havoc on their habitat,'' says Steve Wilds, regional migratory bird chief with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. ''They were forced to move to rice fields inland, and they found the food very acceptable. They ate better in the winter and went north in the spring in better shape.''
They also found more food along the way, as farming practices on the Great Plains began to change. Emphasis switched from grazing cattle to growing grain. Geese arrived on their breeding grounds in better shape than ever before. They laid more eggs and had better nesting success.
Human preference also factored into the population boom. Light geese are not the preferred target of goose hunters. Most would rather hunt larger Canada geese, which decoy more easily and taste better. Add a growing light goose population to the lack of harvest and a population boom resulted.
The North America snow goose wintering population index in the 1950s was estimated at 500,000. Today it's about 3 million. The birds have damaged the arctic breeding grounds on which they nest. Unlike Canada geese, which browse for food, snow geese are grubbers that dig for tubers and underground roots. In spring they feed around wetland fringes that are first to thaw. Because of the sheer numbers of geese feeding on the tundra, the soils have been damaged to the point that plants cannot sustain themselves in many places.
Goslings add to the havoc. All those young geese need something to eat and they've wiped out grasses along the Hudson Bay.
''As they eat off the vegetation,'' Wilds says, ''the salinity of the soil increases and it can't support the original plants. Some salt-tolerant plants have taken their place, but they're not acceptable food for geese. Today there are large areas with no useful vegetation at all.''
The problem is well documented around La Perouse Bay near Churchill, Manitoba, Wilds says.
Thirty other species of birds have suffered from the snow goose explosion, including wigeon, shoveller, long-tailed duck (old squaw), red-breasted merganser, dowitcher, Hudsonian godwit, whimbrel, stilt sandpiper, parasitic jaeger and Canada goose.
Two years ago the USFWS established a spring hunt in an attempt to curb the snow goose population. The first spring hunt in 2000 brought down 645,000 birds. Added to the previous fall's harvest the total take of light geese in 1999-2000 was a record 1.6 million. In the spring of 2001, however, 529,000 were shot. Added to the previous fall's harvest the total take for 2000-2001 was 1 million.
It's suspected that poor production on the breeding grounds the preceding summer reduced the hatch. Adult birds that have been down the flyway a time or two are considerably more difficult to hunt.
Later this year the USFWS and the Canadian Wildlife Service will team up to count the light goose population through aerial surveys of their arctic breeding grounds. In the meantime, spring goose hunters are afield in the Dakotas and Minnesota, harvesting a unique and unexpected surplus.
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