By Mark Petrie, Ph.D.
North America now has nearly three times as many geese as there were just 30 years ago, offering new opportunities for waterfowlers and management challenges for biologists
Then some old man would shake his head and say, “Beats all, the geese came back.” And no one spoke, for the old man had summarized the best thing that had happened to the Eastern Shore in a hundred years. —James Michener, Chesapeake.
It's been five decades since Maryland 's Eastern Shore was transformed from a waning duck destination into the world's first goose hunting capital. Since then, goose numbers have grown largely unchecked from Chesapeake Bay clear to Humboldt County, California. The resurgence of goose populations in North America may be the greatest success story in wildlife management, a claim only white-tailed deer and wild turkey biologists would dispute. If you hunt geese, times have never been better.
The story of North America 's geese can be read in the plain statistics of waterfowl management. Today, there are nearly three times as many geese as there were just 30 years ago. During the 1960s, U.S. hunters harvested an average of a million geese a year. By 2003, the goose harvest was approaching 4 million, which is about the number of mallards we shoot in a typical season. Thirty years ago hunters bagged the occasional goose while duck hunting. Today geese provide the bulk of the hunting opportunity for many of the nation's waterfowlers.
North America 's goose populations have increased for several reasons, but chief among them is that geese are not ducks. Most geese breed in the Arctic, not the prairies, where agriculture has made it a tough place to hatch an egg. For now, we're content to let the Arctic grow geese. Second, agriculture has provided geese with almost unlimited food supplies during winter. Historically, some goose populations were reduced by winter food shortages, which lowered survival rates. That limiting factor is completely gone for most geese. Finally, goose management has become increasingly sophisticated in recent years. Waterfowl biologists can accurately index the size of most populations and the hunting they will bear.
We now manage 25 distinct populations of geese in North America, and it is simply not possible to examine all these populations in a single report. Therefore, we'll concentrate on Canada geese and light geese, because they comprise most of the continent's total goose population. Canada geese (including the small varieties now referred to by the American Ornithologists' Union as cackling geese) are treated by flyway, while our discussion of light geese crosses flyway boundaries.