The Giant Canada goose, once abundant across the plains, was near extinction as a result of market hunting and egg collecting for domestic flocks and live decoys. The discovery of remnant wild populations brought forth a Fish and Wildlife Service, North Dakota Game and Fish Department, South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks and private effort to restore the grand goose to the prairies.
Restoration efforts began in the mid-1950's at two areas in South Dakota - Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge and Shadehill Reservoir. At the same time, geese were also introduced at the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center in Jamestown, North Dakota.
Audubon Refuge entered the restoration picture in 1956 with 65 wild geese from Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Missouri. The first attempt did not prove very successful. The first true Branta canadensis maxima (Giant Canada geese) were brought to the Refuge in 1959 and released in 1962.
More birds were brought to the Refuge throughout the late 1950's and mid-1960's.
Restoration efforts involved captive-rearing, releasing and transplanting birds. Nowadays, transplanting wild-reared goslings in North Dakota is the primary method used to establish new nesting populations. That's where Audubon Refuge becomes very important.
Each year in early July, a version of "organized chaos" occurs. In reality, it's a well-orchestrated goose round-up involving biologists and volunteers, boats, nets and metal leg bands.
Giant Canada geese - adults and young alike - are herded into narrow bays along Lake Audubon's shoreline. What looks like an innocent fishing boat creeping up on flightless birds - adults because of molting flight feathers, juveniles because their wings aren't yet fully developed - quietly herds the birds toward catch pens.
The goslings are separated from adults to avoid getting squished in the pandemonium. Each bird is given an aluminum leg band and identified by sex and age- either adult or young of the year.
Some goslings are still yellow fuzz balls of feathers. Others are nearly fully grown and identified as juveniles only by a "V" notch on the very tips of their tail feathers. The "V" is formed when the original, fuzzy, down feather breaks off.
Birds are loaded in crates and trucked to wetland release sites throughout North Dakota. The goal? Establish Giant Canada goose populations where they haven't nested before. How? The young females return each spring to the area where they learn to fly. A few adults are released with the goslings to teach them the ways of the goose world because adults readily adopt one another's goslings. The young birds will return in future years and raise their own broods at the site they were trucked to. The adults? They'll find their way back to Audubon to nest another season.
Geese from Audubon Refuge have been released in many counties throughout North Dakota, helping bring this giant honker back to the Plains.
The comeback of the Giant Canada goose ranks as one of the greatest wildlife management success stories. It came about because of the cooperative efforts of so many private individuals and organizations as well as state and federal agencies. Thanks to those efforts, people throughout the Central Plains can once again enjoy the sight of broad wings and majestic flight with the resounding call of the giant honker.