By BRAD DOKKEN, Grand Forks Herald
GRAND FORKS, N.D. (AP) - Sometime in the next several days, waves of snow geese will fill the sky across parts of North Dakota and western Minnesota as the birds race north toward their arctic breeding grounds.
They're impressive to watch, these seemingly endless skeins, but after more than a decade of intensive hunting pressure to trim their numbers, the midcontinent population of snow geese remains too high, and the birds continue to threaten the fragile arctic coastline.
It's a confounding problem for wildlife managers.
Liberalized regulations, including a spring "conservation order" in effect since 1999 - officials don't like to call it a hunting season - have slowed the rate of population growth. But they haven't resulted in fewer snow geese.
Managers say they really don't know for sure how many snow geese are out there - some estimates have put the population as high as 25 million - but one thing's for sure:
"We haven't cut the population back at all," said Mike Johnson, migratory game bird management supervisor for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck. "It's high and still growing, but at a much slower rate."
“Everything we do [the geese] respond to, and they change their behavior to maintain their high survival rates.”Mike Johnson, North Dakota Game and Fish Dept.
A key player in North American strategies to curb snow goose numbers, Johnson co-authored a chapter on harvest in a soon-to-be-published report that examines the effectiveness of management actions to reduce the midcontinent population.
The Arctic Goose Joint Venture, a multi-agency partnership of wildlife managers across the U.S. and Canada, is sponsoring the report.
According to Johnson, the midcontinent snow goose kill has ranged from about 1.2 million to nearly 1.5 million since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service authorized the first spring conservation order in 1999.
Hunters who take the field in the spring can use electronic calls, unplugged shotguns that hold more than three shells and kill an unlimited number of snow geese, blue geese or Ross's geese.
Regulations are much tighter during the traditional fall season.
"We've about doubled the harvest with the conservation actions, but that's still not enough to bring the population under control," Johnson said.
When managers began exploring how to reduce snow goose populations in the late 1990s, the goal was to triple the harvest and, ultimately, to see a recovery in the coastal arctic habitat the birds have destroyed, Johnson said.
So far, neither objective has been met.
Part of the problem, Johnson said, is that snow geese can live 20 years or more and are extremely adaptable - not only to increased hunting pressure but to changes in habitat. As the geese destroy the vegetation on their coastal breeding areas, they're on the move for new places to nest.
"We've actually seen those geese expand into new areas we didn't think they could go," Johnson said. "They're raising their young back in the boreal forest, and they're expanding into areas where they find things to eat.
"Everything we do they respond to, and they change their behavior to maintain their high survival rates," he added.
The interest in pursuing snow geese in the spring also has leveled off as hunters realize just how difficult the hunt can be, even with advantages such as electronic calls and unplugged shotguns.
"They're very challenging," Johnson said, "primarily because they occur in such large flocks. They are smart and wary."
Hunters often have to contend with wet, muddy conditions, as well.
"It's tough work - it's not a relaxing, easy hunt for the most part," Johnson said. "North Dakota is probably one of the more difficult places to get after them, along with South Dakota, just because of the wet, muddy fields."
Steve Cordts, waterfowl staff specialist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Bemidji, said he puts snow geese at the top of his list of difficult birds to hunt. That's been even more apparent the past five years, he said, as the older birds become more educated.
"They're fun to hunt, but you can get outsmarted," Cordts said. "Generally, if you're in an area with lots of geese around, they always give you a good show. You may not kill very many, and often you may get skunked."
Minnesota typically doesn't attract more than 500 or 600 spring snow goose hunters because most of the migration occurs farther west in the Dakotas, Cordts said. In North Dakota, Johnson of the Game and Fish Department said spring participation has declined from more than 6,000 hunters in 1999, the first year of the conservation order, to 1,172 hunters last year.
Spring hunters last year shot 7,150 geese in North Dakota, he said, down from a high of more than 35,000 in 2000.
A couple of factors explain the trend, Johnson said.
"We see that any time with a new season," he said. "There's a big spike and then it trails off.
"The other thing is that the geese have really responded and are not cooperating. They blow through here pretty fast in the spring."
That likely will be the case this year, as well, Johnson said. Even though North Dakota's spring season has been open several weeks, lingering snow across the state has kept the birds in South Dakota.
"If you really want to get a shot at them, you have to get a situation where they push along the snow line and are stuck there," Johnson said. He said Louisiana, Missouri, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota kill the most snow geese every spring, accounting for 73 percent of the total harvest since 1999.
Johnson said the ultimate success of any control measure depends on removing adult birds from the population. He said much of the harvest has targeted juvenile geese that have the lowest survival rates anyway.
As a result, waterfowl managers continue to wrestle with future options for reducing the snow goose population. Johnson said the Arctic Goose Joint Venture has explored numerous alternatives, including killing birds on their wintering grounds and breeding areas, but all have significant financial and social drawbacks.
He said there are no clear "this is what we should do" solutions.
"That's the million dollar question," Johnson said. "We really don't know. Management agencies are going to have to think about this real hard.
"Obviously, we need to keep up the pressure with the hunting and the fall and the spring harvests," Johnson said. "Beyond that, you're getting into some pretty new ground.
"I don't know where it's going to go. I really don't."
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)