To all the other old duck hunters in this crowd besides me, did you ever think you would see the day when it would be perfectly legal in Missouri to shoot snow geese from February until April with unplugged shotguns, electronic callers and no kill limits on the number of geese killed?
Our disbelief stems in part from the fact that for years, it was thought that snow geese might some day become extinct.
In fact, from 1916 until 1975, hunting snows in the Atlantic flyway was completely banned and hunting them in the Mississippi and Central flyways was subject to significant restrictions and limits.
All this changed in 1999, when the new rules were put into effect. I haven’t hunted snow geese very often since 1999, but when I do, I can’t shake this feeling that we are doing something really, really illegal and that any minute, a SWAT team of game wardens is going to descend upon us and confiscate our guns.
But in fact, all of this is legal and actually encouraged by wildlife experts. In other words, there is no real need to invite that obnoxious lawyer along on the trip “just in case.”
So why are we encouraged to kill a bird that was once thought to be in danger of becoming extinct?
First we need to clarify a few things. We are not talking about the Canadian goose or the white-fronted goose (also known as the speckled belly goose). We are talking about the white or light goose.
There are two subspecies for the light goose: the snow goose and the Ross’s goose. And as to the snow goose, there are several more subdivisions: the greater snow goose, the lesser snow goose, and a genetic variant of the lesser snow goose in the form of a so-called blue goose.
For purposes of this discussion, I will refer to all of these geese as “snow geese.”
So what’s not to like about the snow goose? The white snow goose is a beautiful bird, with its all-white body, matching orange feet and beak, and black-tipped wings.
Watching a flight of snows in their migration route, seemingly a mile high in the sky, screaming as they swarm past you in a pell-mell fashion, makes most hunters stop what they are doing and watch the magic.
Another endearing thing about snows, at least as far as my wife is concerned, is that they mate for life. (As she says, “How in the world can you shoot something that mates for life?” Actually, it is not all that hard, but I digress.)
And to carry this guilt trip a little further down the road, during the first several migrations south from the breeding grounds, it is said that the offspring fly with the mother and father.
But before we get too overwhelmed here, let’s consider two disturbing things about these creatures.
First, the snow goose breeding grounds are much further north than most other waterfowl — actually they are in the arctic and subartic areas of Alaska, Canada, Greenland and even Siberia.
These areas, referred to as tundra, have a very short growing season for plants and what does manage to grow there is quite fragile. Once those plants are grazed to the point that the roots of the plant are ripped out from the ground, they will never come back.
Instead, without the benefit of plant growth, the soil becomes saline and unable to support any plant life whatsoever. In other words, this is an extremely delicate environment to begin with.
The second part of the problem is that the female snow goose, in the days leading up to the point when she lays her eggs, has a voracious appetite.
According to wildlife experts, during this period, she is gorging herself 18 hours a day. And to do this, she is eating all plant life on the tundra, including the roots of the plants she is consuming.
This practice, referred to as “grubbing,” is extremely destructive and impacts all other wildlife in the arctic in addition to the snow geese.
In fact, it is estimated that 35 percent of the snow goose breeding grounds in the arctic have been completely and irretrievably destroyed, 35 percent have been “overgrazed,” and another 30 percent have been “severely damaged.”
And it isn’t just during the period leading up to the incubation of the eggs that this destruction occurs; after the eggs are hatched, the goslings — normally ranging in numbers from two to six — are soon capable of foraging on their own in preparation for the long migration trip soon to be undertaken.
The destruction of these breeding grounds is so bad that it is has been visible from satellites for some time now.
Beginning in about 1975, wildlife authorities began to realize that the snow goose population was increasing much quicker than expected. It was at that point that the greater snow goose hunting ban was lifted in the Atlantic flyway and the limits for the lesser snow geese in the Mississippi and Central flyways were modestly increased.
By the 1990’s, however, it became apparent that despite increased hunting pressure, the snow goose numbers had tripled in size and that we were moving toward a catastrophic situation.
Not only were portions of the arctic and subarctic tundra being permanently destroyed, but there was a growing possibility of a catastrophic disease outbreak among all waterfowl, not just snow geese, because of the tendency of the snow geese to “colonize” or take over habitat traditionally used by other waterfowl.
In particular, it was feared that avian cholera, a highly contagious disease affecting all waterfowl, could result from allowing the numbers of snow geese to continue unabated.
On February 12, 1999, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a “news release” which set forth in great detail the background of the problem caused by snow geese and how and why the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service felt it was necessary to control the snow goose population by allowing a radical departure from traditional hunting methods and limitations.
This news release, which can be found on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website, explained why reducing the snow goose population by poisons, trapping, and other so-called humane methods would not work.
In short, the snow goose breeding grounds, located in the arctic and subarctic, are so uninhabitable for humans that we could not reasonably expect a sustained and reliable method of reducing the population by having human resources there on the spot.
As stated in the news release, the objective was to reduce the snow goose population by one-half within 10 years and the only realistic way to do this was by removing limitations on hunting practices directed specifically at the snow goose.
Four days later, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued proposed rules to implement this new approach. These rules included extending the season, allowing electronic callers and unplugged shotguns and eliminating the kill limits.
In November 1999, Congress passed the “Arctic Tundra Habitat Emergency Conservation Act” which allowed the proposed rules to take effect. (The rules can be found by googling “Light Goose Conservation Order.”)
In 2009, at the end of the 10-year period proposed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to have attained a 50 percent decrease in the snow goose population, had we reached that goal? Hardly.
While statistics suggested that there was a noticeable increase in harvested snow geese for the first few years, that trend has not continued. In fact, the snow goose population is increasing at a rate of 5 percent per year despite continuation of the Light Geese Conservation Order to the present.
It is believed one reason for the increase is that as these snow geese get older — they have a life span of about 20 years — they have become smarter and harder to hunt.
I hate to think that over the long haul, we are being outsmarted by a bunch of geese but that could be the case.
(Bill Hoagland has practiced law for more than 50 years in Madison County, Ill., and lives in the Alton area. He and his wife, Annie, have been outdoor enthusiasts all of their lives. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)