Increased Hunting Proposed to Save Arctic Tundra

WASHINGTON, DC, October 1, 2001 (ENS) - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to increase hunting of snow geese and other small geese to help halt their destructive population boom. Vast flocks of geese are now overgrazing their fragile Arctic tundra breeding habitat, and for the past several years, wildlife managers have depended on hunters to help control their numbers.

snow geese

A rapidly growing population of snow geese is destroying the fragile Arctic habitat (Photo by Craig Bihrle, courtesy U.S. Geological Survey)
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is asking for public comment on a draft environmental impact statement released Friday that evaluates options for managing various populations of light geese in order to halt ongoing destruction of migratory bird habitat in arctic Canada. The draft document will ultimately guide the agency's long range management strategy for the flourishing light goose (greater and lesser snow and Ross' goose) populations that migrate through and winter throughout much of the United States.

"This environmental impact statement, when finalized, will establish a national management strategy for light goose populations that will return them to sustainable levels and protect vital migratory bird breeding habitat in Arctic and sub-Arctic regions," said acting USFWS director Marshall Jones. "Dozens of migratory bird species that winter in and migrate through the backyards, parks and wilds of the United States depend on this habitat, which is rapidly being destroyed by light goose populations that exceed the ability of the land to support them."

Increasing agricultural and refuge development along waterfowl flyways has improved the food supply available to light geese during their annual migrations. As a result, population growth rates have exploded. The annual winter population index of the so called mid-continent light geese has tripled in the past 30 years, from just over 800,000 birds in 1969 to a peak of 3.1 million birds in the winter of 1996-97.

Recent poor breeding conditions and increased harvests due to existing conservation measures have contributed to small declines in the winter count to a current level of 2.34 million birds. However, the total number of birds on known breeding colonies in the central and eastern Arctic likely approaches 5.8 million birds in spring.

destruction

A research plot showing natural tundra habitat protected from geese in an enclosure, surrounded by overgrazed, decimated habitat (Three photos courtesy courtesy American Museum of Natural History Hudson Bay Project)
The fragile tundra and salt marsh habitat in the vicinity of light goose breeding colonies cannot support populations of that size. For example, the rapidly expanding population of greater snow geese has degraded natural marsh habitats along migration areas in the St. Lawrence River valley, and caused extensive crop damage on nearby farms.

Over the past decade, researchers have documented increasing habitat loss and degradation on thousands of acres of salt marshes and freshwater wetlands in the Canadian arctic, particularly in the Hudson Bay Lowlands.

Congregating in large numbers, light geese dig into the soil, consuming the roots of plants before they have sprouted. Grazing of aboveground portions of plants by geese further removes vegetative cover. Plant communities are increasingly unable to rebound from this intense grazing, grubbing and shoot pulling, particularly given the short growing season in the Arctic.

Removal of plant leads to an increase in evaporation rates, bringing additional salts to the surface and increasing the saltiness of the soil. This increased salinity reduces and eventually eliminates the ability of salt marsh plants to grow in the soil, resulting in desertification, erosion and permanent loss of habitat.

dead willows

When geese remove the vegetation from the tundra, evaporation increases, making the soil increasingly salty. The high salt content eventually kills the small tundra willow trees
The new USFWS draft environmental impact statement evaluates a range of alternatives in relation to their ability to reduce and stabilize light goose populations and prevent further degradation of their habitats.

The agency's favored alternative would increase the harvest of light geese by allowing hunters to use electronic calls to lure geese in to hunting sites, and to hunt with unplugged shotguns after all other migratory bird seasons have closed. The preferred alternative would also create a new regulation to allow the hunting of light geese outside of normal hunting seasons.

The preferred alternative is similar to provisions that were implemented by legislation in February 1999, but were later challenged in court. Those measures were initially withdrawn to prevent further litigation, but due to concerns that habitat destruction would accelerate, the measures were reinstituted in November 1999, pending completion of the environmental impact statement.

snow goose

Many wildlife experts say shooting some geese, like this lesser snow goose, is necessary to save their breeding habitat and all the species that depend on the tundra
Other alternatives detailed in the environmental impact statement range from taking no additional action to the direct removal of large numbers of light geese on the birds' breeding grounds in the arctic, using wildlife agency personnel or their agents.

The draft environmental impact statement on light goose management is available at: http://migratorybirds.fws.gov. The USFWS will accept public comments on the draft statement until December 14.