Migratory Bird Program
Conserving the Nature of America
ARCTIC ECOSYSTEMS IN PERIL: REPORT OF THE ARCTIC GOOSE HABITAT WORKING GROUP


Part I


INTRODUCTION


BRUCE BATT, Ducks Unlimited, Inc., Memphis, TN 38120

Waterfowl managers have achieved considerable success with goose populations over the past several decades. Although a few populations remain problematic, most are near, or above, long-term numerical goals. These successes have come about as a result of several factors inherent to the biology of geese that allow them to be more easily managed and because of preadaptations that have allowed geese to successfully exploit human modified landscapes.

Most goose populations have fairly definitive breeding, migration and wintering ranges where harvest and habitat management strategies and refuges can be targeted for the benefit of the birds. Also, since geese are grazers, the quality of their feeding habitats throughout most of their migratory and wintering ranges has actually improved with agricultural and urban development. Most goose species have adapted to feeding on waste agricultural grains or on newly planted crops. A few species, especially some Canada geese, have adapted to feeding in urban areas where they exploit fertilized and manicured corporate lawns, golf courses and public parks, as well as nearby agricultural areas.

During the past two decades, several populations have exceeded management goals and, even in the face of increased bag limits and longer season lengths, have continued to increase in number. This has been most conspicuous for some Arctic-nesting white geese (lesser snow geese, greater snow geese, Ross' geese) and Canada geese that are resident in areas of southern Canada and the lower 48 states. Management goals have also been exceeded for other populations but have not yet gained much attention from managers or the public. There is an emerging pattern of many goose populations having moved beyond waterfowl managers' ability to affect population size using traditional methods of controlling bag limits and season lengths.

Waterfowl managers have typically been motivated to maintain breeding populations at numbers that provide some sustainable harvest. Most management paradigms relate to protecting, building or restoring the size of breeding populations. There are few management programs to deal with overabundant populations of waterfowl other than for problems in local situations where birds cause damage to agricultural crops or where they are a nuisance in some urban areas. Indeed, there is no well- developed consensus on whether higher than targeted populations of waterfowl are good, neutral or problematic, such as there is for wildlife like white-tailed deer. There has been little debate on bigger ecological concerns such as the carrying capacity of breeding, wintering or staging areas or long-term ecosystem impacts of excessive grazing and grubbing by geese.

There is a growing body of literature on the effects of excessively high numbers of geese which reduce habitat integrity and gosling survival, growth rates and adult body size of lesser snow geese (e.g. Cooke et al. 1995). A series of papers delivered at the Eighth North American Arctic Goose Conference and Workshop in Albuquerque, New Mexico in February 1995 identified the occurrence of these observations on several different colonies, including other species, across the Arctic. Subsequent discussions, popular press articles in Ducks Unlimited Magazine (Young 1993) and American Hunter Magazine (Bourne 1995), correspondence between Working Group member Dr. Dave Ankney and officials in the Canadian Wildlife Service and the publication of Ankney (1996) heightened scientists' and public officials' awareness of possible problems with overabundant goose populations.

The upshot was an ad hoc workshop of about 50 scientists and managers on the topic at the Arctic Goose Joint Venture Technical Committee and Management Board Meetings at Oak Hammock Marsh, Manitoba in October 1995. The charge to the workshop was to review what was known about the extent of the problem, particularly as it related to impacts on habitats and other species, and to advise the AGJV on what future actions should be undertaken. That group concluded that over-abundant goose populations could well be a serious long-term management problem and advised the AGJV Management Board that a working group should be established "to develop a scientific approach to the problem of habitat degradation". They recommended that the group should consist of about 16 individuals representing government and non-government conservation organizations in the U.S. and Canada. The AGJV took this advice and formed the group that is responsible for this report.

The Arctic Goose Habitat Working Group met for the first time at the Ducks Unlimited Symposium in Memphis, Tennessee in February 1996. At that time, the general plan for this report was established. The approach was endorsed by the AGJV Management Board in March, 1996 at Tulsa, Oklahoma. The Working Group agreed to complete the report by the end of October, 1996 for review by the AGJV Management Board.

The Working Group operated under two guiding principles. Foremost, was that the Group's work would be guided by traditional standards of scientific scrutiny and objectivity. Our charge was to provide the AGJV Management Board with a strong biologically-based report, free from bias imposed by political pressures, or by any predispositions that individual Group members might have had as the process started. The second principle was adopted as the process unfolded and we reviewed possible management actions that might be taken to reduce the size of mid-continent white goose populations. We decided that any management action recommended by the Group would be based on the principle that the birds are valuable natural resources, as game animals and as food. Thus, we did not consider any recommendations that advocated slaughter and destruction of birds followed by their being wasted in land fills or some similar fate.

Part II presents a comprehensive analysis of the published and unpublished information on the growth of several populations of geese, the causes of these changes and the impacts on habitat and the birds themselves. Lastly, it comments on the long-term implications of these changes to the future of Arctic and sub-Arctic habitats used by breeding geese. This section, compiled by Drs. Kenneth Abraham of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, and Robert Jefferies of the University of Toronto, provides the technical background that confirms the scope and implications of allowing some goose populations to continue to expand in size and distribution. This information established the basis for the Working Group's core conclusion that some measures must be taken to reduce populations back to a more sustainable level.

Part III was developed by Drs. Robert Rockwell of the American Museum of Natural History, Evan Cooch of Simon Fraser University and Solange Brault of the University of Massachusetts. It presents a population model, based on best estimates of parameters from a long-term study of lesser snow geese nesting at La Pérouse Bay (see Cooke et al. 1995) on the west coast of Hudson Bay. It develops several scenarios of possible interventions that management might take to reduce the mid-continent snow goose population. Several explicit assumptions are made and explained including the current size of the population, a desired time span for reducing it and a target population of approximately 50% of the current size. The major conclusion is that the most effective management measures must be directed towards reducing adult survival.

Part IV, by Michael Johnson of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, describes a collection of possible management interventions that might be used to reduce the size of mid-continent snow goose populations. It has been the subject of several reviews by the Working Group and has had additional input from waterfowl managers across the U.S. and Canada. Some measures that were originally included were deleted after the Working Group formally adopted the principle of respect for the birds as game animals and as food. Biologists from the Mississippi and Central Flyway Technical Sessions provided very helpful advice on the content and organization of Part IV.

Part V was prepared by Dr. Don Rusch of the Wisconsin Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit, and Dale Caswell of the Canadian Wildlife Service. It recommends that a combination of four population and habitat components should be monitored to evaluate progress towards the goals of the Arctic goose management initiative called for in this Working Group report. These are: harvest rates, adult survival rates, goose population status and the status of coastal tundra habitats.

Finally, Part VI represents the Working Group's conclusions and recommendations. All Working Group members had opportunities to contribute to all portions of the report throughout its development.

The Working Group acknowledges the encouragement and interest of AGJV Management Board Chairmen, Gerald McKeating of the Canadian Wildlife Service, and Paul Schmidt of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. These individuals provided on-going encouragement that the Working Group's advise would be taken seriously in the development of federal agency action programs to resolve problems caused by over abundant mid-continent snow geese. They kept the group free from bureaucratic and political restraints and provided travel support for some academically-based members who would not have been able to participate without this help.

This report was presented to the Arctic Goose Joint Venture Management Board on October 30, 1996 in Smyrna, Delaware. The Management Board endorsed the report and forwarded it to the Secretary of the Interior in the U.S., the Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Minister of the Environment in Canada and the Director General of the Canadian Wildlife Service. They recommended that the two federal agencies take action to reduce mid-continent snow goose populations to the levels suggested by the Working Group. They further recommended that a task force be established by March of 1997 to develop an effective management program, to be implemented by the fall of 1998, that would reduce populations and reverse the destruction of Arctic goose habitats caused by over-abundant mid-continent snow geese.

The group received input at two meetings from representatives of communities in northern Canada, namely from: Ginette Lajoie and Kenny Blacksmith of the Grand Council of the Crees, and; Noah Muckpau of the Arviat Hunters and Trappers organization. CWS representatives, Kathy Dixon and Steve Wendt attended one meeting and provided valuable perspectives. Scott Stephens of the Conservation Programs Group (CPG) at Ducks Unlimited provided extensive logistic and technical assistance in assembling this report. Paula Booker and Marvin Coleman, of the CPG, Chuck Petrie of DU Magazine and Cecille Birchler and Karen Almand of DU's Creative Services staff provided other valuable assistance. Other acknowledgements by individual writing team members are included in each part of the report, however, one individual, Dr. Austin Reid of the Canadian Wildlife Service, provided an especially valuable critique of the last draft.

We also extend our appreciation to the organizations for which we work as they allowed time (and travel expense for many members) for our participation in this effort. This amounted to a considerable commitment for several individuals and organizations. We hope the comprehensiveness and timeliness of this report vindicate that their trust was well placed and that we contribute meaningfully to the reversal of the current path to habitat destruction in large portions of the Arctic ecosystem.

LITERATURE CITED

Ankney, C.D. 1996. An embarrassment of riches: too many geese. J. Wildl. Manage. 60:217- 223.

Bourne, W. 1995. The snow goose dilemma. American Hunter 23:40-41, 48-50.

Cooke, F., R.F. Rockwell, and D.B. Lank. 1995. The Snow Geese of La Pérouse Bay. Oxford Univ. Press. New York, N.Y. 297pp.

Young, M. 1993. Arctic snows. Ducks Unlimited Magazine 1993:49-51.

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Last updated: April 11, 2012