Ecological Problems Associated with Overabundant White Goose Populations

Dr. John G. Rogers


April 15, 1999

Thank you for the opportunity to appear today to discuss management activities associated with ecological problems caused by overabundant light geese.

North American geese are a natural resource of enormous economic and social value to both hunters and birdwatchers throughout the United States. Migratory bird hunting, including goose hunting, generates about $4 billion of economic activity annually. Local and regional economies are further enhanced by expenditures of millions of people viewing and photographing geese during migration and winter. Management of light goose populations in North America has presented the wildlife management community with one of its most challenging tasks. In contrast to the efforts to restore wildlife populations depleted by years of market hunting in the late 1800s and early 1900s, we are now faced with managing some populations of geese that have become so overabundant that they are literally destroying their own habitat and a priceless ecosystem. Dealing with this problem has forced the Service to change its management approach to save goose populations from one of population restoration and maintenance to one of population control.

Mid-continent light geese are lesser snow geese (Anser c. caerulescens) and Ross' geese (Anser rossii) that breed in the subarctic and arctic regions of Canada, primarily along the south and west coasts of Hudson Bay and the southern portions of Southampton and Baffin Islands. These light geese migrate southward in the fall through the Central and Mississippi Flyways. Historically, mid-continent light geese wintered primarily in the coastal areas of Texas and Louisiana; however, today their winter range spans across Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and the central highlands of Mexico.

The mid-continent light goose population has grown more than 300 percent over the last 30 years, from 900,000 birds in 1969 to over 3 million birds today, as measured by mid-winter surveys. These population levels far exceed any historical records. The rapid growth of the population has been primarily attributed to the expansion of agriculture along the Central and Mississippi Flyways, low mortality, and increased winter survival.

Another population of geese that is steadily increasing as a result of increased use of agricultural lands and lower mortality rates is the greater snow goose (Anser c. atlanticus). These geese breed in the eastern Arctic of Canada and Greenland and migrate southward through Quebec, New York, and New England to their wintering grounds in the mid-Atlantic U.S. The greater snow goose population has expanded from less than 50,000 birds in the late 1960s to approximately 700,000 today. With a growth rate of about 9 percent per year, the population is expected to reach 1 million by 2002, and 2 million by 2010.

Abundant food resources in migration and wintering areas have fostered rapid population growth in these three species of light geese. However, for the mid-continent population, suitable breeding habitat in the arctic tundra is becoming a limiting factor. This is a direct result of the intense feeding activities of light geese, which leads to the loss of vegetation and an increase in soil salinity.

Due to the short tundra growing season, such habitats may take decades to recover, if they recover at all. Currently, 35 percent of the 135,000 acres of habitat in the Hudson Bay Lowlands is considered destroyed, 30 percent is damaged, and 35 percent is heavily grazed. Other arctic habitats may be suffering the same fate as existing snow goose colonies expand and new colonies are established.

The Service, along with the Canadian Wildlife Service and virtually every credible wildlife biologist in both countries, believes that the mid-continent light goose population has exceeded the carrying capacity of its breeding habitat and that the population must be reduced to avoid long-term damage to an ecosystem important to many other wildlife species in addition to snow geese. In 1997, the Arctic Goose Habitat Working Group of the Arctic Goose Joint Venture recommended that wildlife agencies take steps to reduce the mid-continent light goose population by 50 percent by 2005. There was overwhelming support for this action by the National Audubon Society, Ducks Unlimited, the American Bird Conservancy and other conservation organizations from both countries.

Although the greater snow goose population has experienced similarly fast growth, studies in the high Arctic have not documented extensive damage to breeding habitats as of yet. However, large populations of greater snow geese are negatively impacting agricultural crops in the U.S. and Canada, natural marshes in the St. Lawrence estuary and some coastal marshes of the mid-Atlantic U.S. In a recent report, the Arctic Goose Habitat Working Group recommended that the population be stabilized by the year 2002 at between 800,000 to 1,000,000 birds. Hopefully, this will prevent a repeat of the destruction of arctic habitats that has occurred as a result of the mid-continent light goose population explosion and stabilize the agricultural damage experienced annually in Canada and the U.S.

An Environmental Assessment of the mid-continent light goose situation was completed by the Service after extensive consultation with State/provincial, private, academic, and non-governmental partners in the U.S. and Canada. Several alternative management actions for reducing the light goose population were examined in the Assessment. The preferred alternative was to authorize new methods of take, namely electronic calls and unplugged shotguns, for use by hunters during normal hunting frameworks, when all other waterfowl and crane seasons were closed. The preferred alternative also advocated (included) creation of a Conservation Order -- a special new management action designed to decrease populations -- that authorized taking of geese during the normal framework closing date of March 10 through August 31.

In early February 1999, the Service issued a Finding of No Significant Impact along with the Environmental Assessment. The Service subsequently published two rules on February 16, 1999, that authorized use of electronic calls and unplugged shotguns with the restrictions cited above, and also established a Conservation Order for the reduction of overabundant mid-continent light geese. These regulations were made available to the 24 States that comprise the Mississippi and Central Flyways. The Service has projected that an additional 618,000 light geese would be harvested in the first year of implementation of the new regulations in the U.S. In its rulemaking, the Service announced that the new measures represented short-term options for addressing the light goose problem and that in 2000 it would initiate preparation of an EIS that considered a range of long-term solutions to the problem. The timeline for preparation of an EIS was established after consultation with the Council on Environmental Quality.

Several states implemented regulations immediately upon publication of the rules. Based on reports from field biologists, the new regulatory tools appear to be very successful for increasing harvest of light geese. However, due to an unusually early spring migration this year, it is possible that the projected level of harvest may not be realized. Harvest information to measure the effectiveness of these regulations will not be available until later this summer. Recently, the Canadian Wildlife Service implemented similar regulatory changes intended to increase harvest of light geese in Canada.

We have no previous experience to guide us in determining how effective increased harvest pressure will be in controlling light goose populations. To complement harvest management actions, we have initiated land management practices that will increase susceptibility of light geese to harvest and make some lands less suitable for these birds. Regional Action Plans were developed in cooperation with the States and will be implemented over the next 3 years to help reduce snow goose numbers. These plans will focus on five points: (1) providing increased hunter opportunity on public and private lands, where feasible; (2) decreasing food availability for snow geese; (3) manipulating wetland areas to deter snow geese; (4) altering winter habitat; and (5) conducting communication and outreach efforts.

The Service's management action has received widespread support from the scientific and conservation community. Conservation groups such as the National Wildlife Federation, Wildlife Management Institute, the Ornithological Council, American Bird Conservancy, and Ducks Unlimited have expressed strong support for the light goose population reduction program. In addition, Flyway Councils and individual State wildlife agencies have worked closely with the Service to implement management actions.

There have been challenges to the Service's proposed actions. On March 3, 1999, the Humane Society of the United States and several other animal rights groups filed a lawsuit against the Service, challenging the new light goose regulations. The plaintiffs maintained that the Service had violated the Migratory Bird Treaty by enacting the new regulations and that an Environmental Impact Statement should have been completed prior to implementation of the rules. On March 12, 1999, a preliminary injunction hearing was held in Federal District Court in Washington, D.C.

On March 18, 1999, Judge Thomas Hogan denied the injunction sought by the plaintiffs. In his written opinion, Judge Hogan indicated that the Service's actions likely constituted a reasonable use of its authority under the Migratory Bird Treaty, and that the population reduction program was based on sound scientific information. However, Judge Hogan stated further that the Service's Environmental Assessment represented a "hard look" at the proposed action that "comports with the spirit of NEPA, though not its letter". The judge concluded that the plaintiffs had demonstrated a substantial likelihood of success on the merits of their NEPA claim if the case proceeded further, and that an Environmental Impact Statement should have been prepared prior to implementation of the new regulations.

The Service believes that the Environmental Assessment of its light goose population reduction program, and accompanying Finding of No Significant Impact, sufficiently complied with the requirements of NEPA. However, based on the written opinion of the Court, the Service has decided not to continue with litigation and will initiate preparation of an EIS immediately. On April 2, 1999, the Service announced its intention to withdraw the two regulations on light goose population reduction after the northward migration later this spring. It is possible that the time requirements for preparing an EIS may preclude resumption of light goose management actions next spring. If population reduction measures are not implemented during spring 2000, the mid-continent population will experience additional growth that otherwise would not occur. Consequently, our ability to bring the population to more desirable levels will become more difficult. Any delay in further population reduction will allow goose numbers to increase. In order to make the most efficient use of our financial and personnel resources, the Service will incorporate management options for greater snow geese in the analysis, in addition to the mid-continent light goose analysis. The resulting EIS therefore will represent a comprehensive management strategy for white geese in the U.S. that includes lesser snow geese, Ross' geese, and greater snow geese.

The range of management options to be analyzed in the EIS process will likely include the two management options authorized this spring, land management practices, as well as direct management options such as trapping and culling on wintering areas and commercial harvest. The full range of options to be considered will be determined during the public scoping phase of the EIS process. Because the authority of the Service is limited to actions in the U.S., the Service cannot consider direct management actions on the arctic breeding grounds, such as collecting eggs, destroying nests, or culling on breeding colonies. However, if management actions in the U.S., combined with regulatory changes implemented by Canada, do not result in the desired population reduction within 3-5 years, it is likely that the Service will request that Canada consider more direct measures on the breeding grounds.

The Service firmly believes that aggressive management intervention is a necessary and scientifically sound approach for the control of white goose populations. Without intervention, we will likely witness the destruction of an ecosystem that is important to other migratory birds and other wildlife species. It is also possible that the snow goose population will crash and remain at extremely low levels due to lack of suitable breeding habitat, the spread of disease, and predation.

The Service is committed to working with State fish and wildlife agencies, Canadian wildlife authorities, and public stakeholders to address the critical issue of the overabundance of white geese.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today and for your support for our efforts to deal with these important migratory bird management issues. I would be pleased to answer any questions you may have regarding this issue.

Disclaimer: All statements are not the opinions or position of those testifying, rather they are the official positions taken by the Administration.