OUTDOORS: ‘Conservation season’ opens

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, February 4, 2003


A “Conservation Season” opens this weekend.

At a time when the trend is to take less of game species to protect their numbers, the situation with snow geese overpopulation has become epidemic. The problem is not one that just popped up overnight.

In the 1990s snow, blue and Ross’ geese steadily built their legions past the safe carrying capacity of their winter habitat.

There are many factors that created the situation. Geese nest further north than ducks and were not hard hit By the droughts of the late 1980s and early 1990s that nearly decimated duck populations. As a result of the shortened duck bag limits and the shortest seasons (30 days) in history, many waterfowl hunters left the sport.

In Louisiana we lost nearly half of our waterfowl hunters. Many of those have since returned and some new ones have entered the sport (which may happen again following this second poor season) but during those lean years, geese enjoyed less hunting pressure.

Agricultural practices in the southern wintering grounds have also provided plenty of feed to keep them healthy for the return flight to the breeding grounds. Nesting success had never been higher.

Other major factors are the birds’ behavioral patterns and to some degree, change in hunting regulations that have favored the geese. While specklebellies still respond well to decoys and calling, snows and blues are a different story. They have learned not to fall for rag spreads and hunters’ calls. They have come to realize that flying in high to only huge, loud flocks of live birds helps them return to the breeding grounds another day.

The protection afforded these geese By setting aside refuges where they are protected has also been an asset. They have learned to use the refuge system as pit stops on the journeys south and north. The ban on lead shot has certainly helped geese, even much more than ducks. Because of the lack of knock-down power of steel versus lead, hunters have had to go to larger shot, which means fewer pellets per ounce which means ineffective shots at long distances. And long distances are usually where geese must be shot.

A 10-year ban on creeping geese which was ironically intent on protecting their numbers may have contributed to less geese finding their way into Louisiana hunters’ bags.

The problem is the nesting grounds. They are in dire shape. Their fragile arctic tundra breeding grounds cannot support their burgeoning numbers.

Overgrazing and grubbing is destroying certain locations there and biologists have predicted that widespread disease or pure starvation will eventually cause their numbers to dwindle, possibly to dangerously low levels.

Faced with that predicament the USFWS considered a number of options to reduce the numbers to a safe level. After numerous hearings and input from citizens they chose to call upon the nation’s hunters to provide the means to thin goose populations.

First, regular seasons and bag limits were liberalized. Then despite the best efforts of anti-hunting groups led By the Humane Society of the United States a plan whose goal is a 50 percent reduction in the population was put into play.

It is called the “Conservation Order” under which all the previously mentioned tactics can be used By hunters.

Spring goose hunting dates vary from state to state but for the most part the extended hunting dates run past the time that any appreciable number of geese are still around.

That is the scenario, now for the answer to the obvious question – is it working? Yes and no. Up until 2001 you would have to give it a resounding “yes!”

“Yes” from the standpoint that from 1998 when the highest population ever recorded (3.1 million) showed a continuous decline for several years following the new regulations. However, it is a “no” when you look at a slight increase in population for 2002. The reason was not because hunters failed to do their part but because 2001’s weather was conducive to early spring migrations which put birds out of the sights of hunters.

Those same weather patterns also brought about favorable nesting conditions another factor partly responsible for the slight rise in numbers. The good news is that despite short term rises in populations blamed on weather, it appears the increased take of geese over the last four years has played a major role in not allowing the population to be even greater.

“The index remains well above the population goal of more than 1.5 million birds, and would be even higher had we not implemented new regulations,” James Kelly Jr., EIS project manager for the USFWS said. “Continued use of these management tools, designed to increase the harvest of light geese, will be necessary to further reduce the rate of population growth and enhance our ability to achieve management goals.”

In case you are wondering Louisiana leads the nation in light geese harvest. Our regular season harvest for 1998-99 (most recent year available) was 194,694 which more than doubled every other state in the Mississippi Flyway, except for No. 2 Arkansas whose hunters bagged 104,709.

Hunters in the entire Central Flyway (which includes Texas) only killed 327,195.

Where we really shine is during the Conservation Order. During that time we bagged 155,900, more than nine times the number killed in the next two closest states, Missouri (17,319) and Arkansas (17,168).

If you are interested in doing your part in conserving the goose population By reducing it, here are the current Conservation Order rules and dates remaining: Feb. 1 through March 9. The use of electronic calls, unplugged shotguns are allowed and there are no daily bag or possession limits. Shooting hours are one-half hour before sunrise to one-half hour after sunset.

DON DUBUC is the outdoors reporter for L’Observateur.