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Banding Together for Waterfowl

Light Goose Dilemma

Despite increased harvests, populations of these Arctic-nesting geese continue to grow
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Increasing Light Goose Harvests

Defining a problem is not nearly as difficult as solving it, and so far the primary means of light goose population control has been through harvest management. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS) have the shared responsibility of conserving waterfowl under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in the United States and the Migratory Birds Convention Act in Canada. State and provincial wildlife agencies are also partners with significant management authority and operate within harvest frameworks established by federal agencies. 

Waterfowl managers have gradually liberalized light goose hunting regulations as the birds' populations have increased. Hunting season lengths of 70 to 93 days and daily bag limits of five birds or less were the rule for light goose species until the late 1980s. Maximum allowable seasons of 107 days and bag limits of up to 20 birds were the norm by the late 1990s. The pace of regulations, however, was not fast enough to keep up with the increase in light goose populations. Even the unprecedented liberalization of hunting regulations allowed by the Light Goose Conservation Order has failed to achieve the objective of tripling the harvest rate of midcontinent lesser snow geese, though efforts to stabilize numbers of greater snow geese through harvest management appear to have been more successful.

The liberalization of hunting regulations has certainly had a positive impact by increasing light goose harvests, and waterfowl managers believe that without the conservation order, light goose populations would be even larger than they are now. But recent evaluations indicate that midcontinent lesser snow and Ross's goose populations—and therefore the magnitude of the problem—are much larger today than previously thought. Despite increases in harvests due to the conservation order and other regulations changes, the overall harvest rate (the proportion of population harvested) of midcontinent light geese has actually declined since hunting regulations were liberalized. 

While conventional harvest management and the conservation order have been only marginally successful in slowing light goose population growth, the continuation of these measures is certainly justified, and efforts to monitor the status of light goose populations and habitats must continue. What else can waterfowl managers do? The sale of migratory birds for consumption is prohibited in the United States and Canada, and changing this policy would be a significant departure from long-held principles of waterfowl management. In addition, direct control measures, such as culling large numbers of birds on breeding, migration, and wintering areas, would likely be expensive and difficult to implement, not to mention controversial among sportsmen, the wildlife management community, and the general public. 

Despite strong evidence of the adverse impacts of light geese on subarctic habitats, the evidence is less clear to the north, and additional research will be required to determine the carrying capacity of Arctic habitats and the extent of habitat degradation in that expansive region. Implementation of direct control measures would require unequivocal scientific evidence that the damage to the environment is severe and extensive enough to justify such unprecedented measures. 

Perhaps the easiest course of action would be to simply let nature take its course and allow light goose populations to continue to grow and impact Arctic and subarctic habitats indefinitely. Most wildlife managers have rejected a do-nothing approach for two reasons. First, without continued management, the ecological damage could be catastrophic, not only for waterfowl but also for a host of other wildlife species. Second, since the overabundance of light goose populations is a human-induced problem, responsibility for addressing it lies with wildlife managers and the public. 

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