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Millions of snow geese imperil fragile ecosystem

Far-northern breeding grounds are devastated. A major culprit: expanded farming in US Midwest.

(Page 2 of 2)

More farming has meant more geese, and more geese mean more pressure on a delicate northern ecosystem. The fact that humans are indirectly responsible for the destruction bolstered the argument that humans should correct the problem.

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“We’re manipulating nature at many different levels,” says Mr. Abraham. It’s irresponsible “to stand back and say, because it’s far away, we should let nature take its course.”
There was also some worry about the geese themselves.

“There could be a tremendous crash in their population,” says James Kelley, the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) Mississippi Flyway representative in Fort Snelling, Minn. “We don’t think [that] is a prudent thing to let happen.”

In the late 1990s, experts recommended halving the population of 3.2 million snow geese by increased hunting. (Some scientists say the actual population was nearer 6 million.) Over the protests of the Humane Society of the United States, which was denied a court injunction, a culling program began in 1999. Hunting seasons were extended and techniques previously prohibited, like electronic calls, were allowed. Now, between 1 million and 1.5 million geese are taken annually, according to the FWS.

And yet, it’s unclear if the increased harvest is working. The salt marsh ecosystem seems to have reached a new equilibrium, says Abraham, meaning that further degradation has halted. But the marshes are not recovering. That could mean that goose numbers are still greater than what the habitat can sustain, or that the habitat takes a long time to recover.

For the Humane Society, the so-far inconclusive results are evidence that increased hunting was pointless and unnecessarily cruel.

“It’s alarmist to suggest that … this is an ecosystem that’s on the verge of collapse,” says John Grandy, senior vice president for wildlife with the Humane Society in Gaithersburg, Md. “There hasn’t been a catastrophe. The habitat still exists. The arctic still exists.”

“We’ve just got to live with the notion that this is a vibrant, functioning ecosystem,” he adds.

But the geese will eat through a lot more summer habitat before reaching a natural limit, says biology professor Rock­well. “Density dependent regulation,” in which an ecosystem supports a finite number of individuals, “only works if you stay put,” he says. Snow geese don’t. In fact, with the saltwater marshes exhausted, the ever-adaptable geese are moving into freshwater marshes. “Almost everywhere we go, we find more snow geese,” he says. Without intervention, he foresees a landscape dominated by snow geese and salicornia, and not much else.

And that raises the sticky prospect of a Plan B. What else can be done?

“We’ve pretty much exhausted many of the hunting-related ap­­proaches,” says Mr. Kelley of the FWS. Population control at the nesting grounds is too expensive – they’re too remote. And large-scale government-sponsored goose removal is none too savory.

States like Missouri do remove nuisance Canada geese, but fewer than 1,000 of them per year. And whoever wants them gone has to foot the bill. (The meat is donated to charities.) But with snow geese, hundreds of thousands of animals would have to be taken.

“I don’t think this would be feasible from a public relations standpoint,” says David Graber, a waterfowl biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation in Columbia, Mo, who has worked on goose-control contingency plans. Public sentiment aside, how would you do it, where would you do it, who would pay for it, and what would you do with the carcasses?

“The logistics are just a nightmare,” he says. “I don’t think that direct control is something that’s on the radar screen.”