By E. Donnall Thomas Jr.
Photograph by Gary Kramer
The time was late March, the place the prairies of eastern Colorado. I was rolled up in a layout blind surrounded by white plastic shells. Incongruously, given the season, I was hunting waterfowl.
I had been recruited to help make a video about shooting spring snow geese. The air was full of snows—not unusual during spring goose seasons, I subsequently learned—but the majority of shots offered were high-altitude over-flights. That said, even the small fraction of birds that crossed the invisible line that defined “shooting range” for my Full-choke barrels and 3″ shells provided plenty of shooting. And I eventually had as many geese as I wanted to pluck.
What was I doing shooting a gunny sack full of snow geese in March? I admit that it felt strange, but this hunt took place not long after the enactment of the Light Goose Conservation Order (LGCO). Not only was everything I was doing legal but, at least in theory, I also was helping solve an ecological threat to the Arctic—a remarkable area that I learned to appreciate when I lived in Alaska.
By the 1990s biologists recognized the kind of problem they should have loved to have had: an overabundance of a popular native gamebird. The North American population of light geese—snow, blue and Ross’—had increased from an average of 1.5 million birds in the 1970s to at least 5 million. (Estimates have today’s population of mid-continental lesser snow geese as high as 11 million.) Habitat on the Canadian Arctic Coastal Plain was suffering, because the overabundant geese were denuding the tundra and impacting many other migratory species. Furthermore, the goose population was increasing by at least 5 percent annually.
The goose population explosion mostly was due to changing agricultural practices in the birds’ wintering grounds, which increased food availability, dispersed the geese and decreased mortality. Arctic warming also had had an impact, as greater amounts of ice-free time had allowed the birds to feed by “grubbing” beneath the surface, killing important forbs.
In 1997 the Arctic Goose Habitat Working Group proposed liberalized hunting regulations as a solution. As Dr. Bruce Batt, the biologist who edited the group’s report, explained, “We were concerned about the degradation of this habitat in the arctic and sub-arctic regions, and we found that the best way to control adult survival was to relax hunting restrictions on snow, blue and Ross’ geese.” As a result, the US Fish and Wildlife Service issued a Conservation Order, which is “a special management action needed to control certain wildlife populations when other means are ineffective.”
For hunters wondering, When can I hunt? the short answer is: It’s complicated.
The terms of the LGCO are federal and simply define the expanded limits within which each state can determine its own supplemental light-goose seasons. Some states, including my home state of Montana, have chosen not to participate at all. In other states spring light-goose seasons run into mid-May. Most others fall somewhere in between. LGCO seasons are most liberal in the Central Flyway, because it has the highest number of mid-continental lesser snows, which are causing the greatest environmental damage. The Pacific Flyway has no extended seasons, in part because many of those snows actually breed in Russia, which has different management goals.
So hunters need to check the specific seasons in the states they plan to hunt—and those seasons are subject to change annually. Having looked at a lot of these regulations in researching this article, I would remind hunters to look specifically for “LGCO light-goose seasons,” which often are listed separately from the traditional goose regulations.
The result was the LGCO, which made significant changes in federal hunting regulations for light geese that individual states could adopt or not. Most traditional restrictions on waterfowl hunting remained, including bans on baiting and lead shot. However, LGCO regulations did offer hunters increased means of take in states that adopted them, allowing electronic callers and unplugged shotguns, increasing or eliminating bag limits, and extending shooting hours to one-half hour after sunset during special seasons. They also allowed extensions of hunting seasons into the spring—as late as mid-May in states where the exploding mid-continental lesser snow goose population was having its greatest impact.
The original goals of the LGCO were to reduce the mid-continental population of light geese by 50 percent within 10 years by tripling the harvest. Current data suggest ambivalent results. USF&WS 2018 surveys showed that Ross’ goose numbers were down by approximately 30 percent. I recently spoke with Josh Dooley, a biologist with the USF&WS Division of Migratory Bird Management, who said that mid-continental snows have increased by around 4 percent. However, harvest numbers (the LGCO requires detailed record-keeping by the states) show that hunters are killing nearly twice as many snows as they were a decade ago. Population increases likely would have been even greater without the liberalized regulations. Fewer young geese are now being observed, and some studies suggest that geese are migrating north with lower fat reserves—factors that may lead to more population decreases in the future.
It is difficult to determine what effect the LGCO has had on Arctic habitat. Dooley emphasized the difficulty of making this assessment because of sampling difficulties and the recent tendency of goose concentrations to move farther inland from their traditional coastal staging areas. Currently it appears that vegetation has improved in some areas but not in others. More time will be required to produce definitive answers.
These days biologists and managers see few attractive options. Killing geese commercially for consumption would be a step back to the market hunting days. Large-scale culling would invite legal action and arouse strong opposition from the public, including hunters. Shooting as many geese as possible under the expanded regulations and letting nature take its course may be the best we can do.