In the 1990s, there were several emergency meetings, and even a congressional hearing in 1998, about the rapid rise of snow goose populations in the Central, Mississippi, and Atlantic Flyways. So much so that in 1999, North America took the gloves off and gave hunters their first Spring Light Goose Conservation Order. Overnight, a new “hunting season” was born, and waterfowlers were given months more hunting opportunity. But what exactly is the Spring Light Goose Conservation Order, and how did snow goose populations get so high?
What is the Conservation Order? The Spring Light Goose Conservation Order is a management tool created for the three aforementioned flyways to use in controlling snow goose populations. In 1989, the Arctic Goose Joint Venture was created to monitor and research the various goose populations of the Arctic. This North American conservation partnership’s management board and technical committee includes partners from a variety of federal, state, provincial, and non-government organizations, including the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the Canadian Wildlife Service, Ducks Unlimited Inc., and the four Flyway Councils. The technical committee is made up of many scientists who advise on populations and help inform management decisions.
Throughout the 1990s, multiple methods of population control were debated and proposed to both the U.S. Congress and the AGJV, including poisoning, but organizations like Ducks Unlimited fought for hunting to be the sole method instead. There was heavy opposition from the Humane Society and other animal rights groups, and they sued the USFWS in 1999.
Their lawsuit claimed that the USFWS had violated the Migratory Bird Treaty Act by not completing an Environmental Impact Study on using hunting as population control, but the federal judge’s written opinion on the lawsuit said the USFWS was within their authority under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act to make such a decision. So, since 1999, the AGJV and its partner organizations have allowed the Spring Light Goose Conservation Order in attempt to reduce snow goose numbers.
It’s important to note that the Conservation Order doesn’t create an actual hunting season like the fall and winter duck and goose seasons. There are a few things that differentiate it from these other seasons. First and foremost, the Conservation Order would “turn off” spring snow goose hunting if management objectives were achieved. For the mid-continent snow goose population, this would be around 1.6 million light geese. When the Conservation Order began, estimates ranged anywhere from 5 to 8 million in the mid-continent population.
In addition, some of the standard hunting restrictions for regular seasons are absent. In the fall, you can’t use electronic calls, you’re limited to three shells in a shotgun, and there are bag limits. But in the spring conservation order, you can have unlimited shells in your gun, most states don’t have bag limits, you can hunt a half hour after sunset, and you can use electronic calls.
The Skyrocketing Population Snow goose numbers actually benefit from the Anthropocene because they’re a winner in human-altered agricultural landscapes. According to historical records gathered by the Fish and Wildlife Service, snow geese wintered in a narrow stretch of brackish waters in Texas and Louisiana until around 1920. From 1920 to the 1940s, the snow geese began expanding into the newly developed rice fields along the coast, and their wintering range grew.
Along the same timeline, more grain crops like corn and wheat were planted in midwestern states, and the snow geese began staging on midwestern waters like Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge in South Dakota, the Rainwater Basin in Nebraska, and Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge in Missouri.
According to Dr. Robert Rockwell, a leading authority on light goose research who began studying snow geese on the Hudson Bay in 1969, this allowed the snow geese to arrive to the nesting grounds in much better health.
“I told the flyways in 1972, snow geese are a lot more productive than we thought they were. The [population] control before was limited habitat on the wintering grounds, and a lot of hunting along the coast. Then the population moved farther north and avoided hunting,” Dr. Rockwell said. “That went quite well for the snow geese.”
La Perouse Bay, ground zero of Dr. Rockwell’s research, helps to put the population increase in perspective. “We started at 1500 nesting pairs and went up to 500,000 pairs at La Perouse Bay,” Dr. Rockwell said.
Over the last 50 years, an expansion of corn to the north and west along the snow goose migration route has coincided with the population boom. Dr. Chris Nicolai, a waterfowl scientist at Delta Waterfowl, points to corn as a significant component in the success of snow geese.
“I can remember starting hunting north of Jamestown, North Dakota in 1994, and we went to hunt Hutchies in the first cornfields those guys had planted,” Nicolai said. “The hunting was incredible. Now, the mid-continent snows are getting fat before they jump the Boreal Forest, and they’re in awesome shape. There have been some studies to see what these birds have been eating, and the eggs show a ton of agricultural isotopes that suggest corn.”
The Foreseeable Future In the last few years, the COVID-19 pandemic and other landscape-level factors have led to questions about what the future of snow goose populations and hunting will look like. Hunting has only had single-digit percentile impacts on population, so the bulk of the population changes will rely on weather and nesting ground.
But COVID-19 regulations have kept researchers from doing any fieldwork on the tundra, and one relatively new factor will make that work harder as researchers return: black and grizzly bears. As should be expected, with the expansion of snow goose populations on the tundra, the predator populations have exploded, too. In La Perouse Bay, according to Dr. Rockwell, the radical increase of bears around the nesting grounds has made field work difficult.
“Right now because of COVID-19, we’re blind, and we don’t know what we’re going to do with all the bears and the changing of where the nests are,” Rockwell said. “We’re not going to put 10 kids on the ground marking nests. It’s staggering how many more bears are on the landscape in the Hudson Bay lowlands. But snow goose populations are healthy.”
But even with the added predators and two decades of spring snow goose hunting, it seems the Conservation Order, a great opportunity to fill the freezer with meat, is going to be here a while longer.
“The population is healthy,” Dr. Rockwell said. “I was an advocate for increasing the bag limit and the Conservation Order, and I got flack for that from some of my colleagues. But part of managing migratory waterfowl in North America is hunting. Hunting gives us money to study them and research them. Without hunters, we wouldn’t be able to do any of this.”