For most waterfowl hunters, the hunting season never lasts quite long enough. Just when it seems the ducks are finally plentiful or when you're looking for a bright spot to end the season, it's time to put the guns away for those eight or so long months until the next one opens. But for more than a decade, hunters have found some consolation in federally litigated light goose hunting, which lasts as long as the geese are around. So what made the government step in and throw hunters a bone? The answer is actually a matter of ecosystem conservation.
Too many geese, not enough land
In the late 1990s, then-DU-Chief-Biologist Dr. Bruce Batt served as chairman of a committee anxious to address a very serious conservation problem: overabundant mid-continent snow geese causing damage to arctic and sub-arctic nesting grounds critical to a variety of other waterfowl and wildlife. With the light goose population increasing by five percent each year, Batt and his fellow committee members performed population modeling and made a recommendation to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Canadian Wildlife Service that pleased many waterfowl hunters.
"We were concerned about the degradation of this habitat in the arctic and sub-arctic regions, and we found the best way to control adult survival was to relax hunting restrictions on snow, blue and Ross's geese," Batt said. "This option made the most sense. Hunting is a socially acceptable pastime, hunters are educated in the proper methods and they could help our cause at basically no cost to the government or private conservation organizations."
The eased-up restrictions this act has provided for hunters include:
- The ability to use electronic callers
- The ability to use unplugged shotguns
- Shooting hours extended to a half-hour past sunset
- No bag limit
- Hunters must possess a valid hunting license from any state.
- Shooting hours during the Snow, Blue and Ross' Goose Conservation Order are one-half (½) hour before sunrise (local time) until one-half (½) hour after sunset (local time).
Of course, this plan, known as the Arctic Tundra Habitat Emergency Conservation Act, or more commonly the Light Goose Conservation Order (LGCO), faced its share of opposition, evidenced by the two years it took to get approved. It was challenged by the Humane Society and eventually made its way to Congress before being federally mandated in 1999. Batt said the goal of the LGCO was to decrease the light goose population by half in 10 years, thereby decreasing the rate of ecosystem destruction in the process.
This attempt to control the light goose population has a direct impact on some of DU's most significant projects, especially those in regions such as the Mississippi Alluvial Valley, which represents the historic floodplain and valley of the lower Mississippi River, and the Rainwater Basin of Nebraska. Both of these regions are critical for waterfowl habitat. Ninety percent of the mid-continent's white-fronted goose population visits the Rainwater Basin during the months of February, March and April, but due to increased demand for water, wetland degradation from sedimentation and invasive plant species and continued drainage of wetlands, this migration habitat has become increasingly vulnerable.
Hunters making a difference
This is where hunters can step in to save the day. More than a few hunters have been quick to point out the many benefits this overpopulation problem has provided, not the least of which is the chance to "play hero" while getting to hunt after duck season closes. Tyson Keller, an avid light goose hunter, feels that snow goose hunting can be a hunter's most rewarding and exhilarating experience.
"If hunters take some time to prepare for the LGCO, they will not only see amazing sights, they will also do their part in helping reduce an overpopulated flock to promote snow goose health," said Keller. "Snows are hunted from September through May across all latitudes and longitudes of Canada and the United States. Any species that is chased and hunted for that amount of time across a massive flyway range will naturally become very smart and conditioned. Having the opportunity to observe and hunt a species like snows can be a great success or a very humbling experience. The way I look at it, if you can fool a flock of snows, you have accomplished something. Also, having the opportunity to see the massive flocks at peak migration is truly a spectacle and can only be described as amazing.'"
Other hunters have echoed Keller's enthusiasm for taking advantage of the LGCO. Martin Hesby, an avid snow goose hunter since 1987 from Brooking, S.D., said the spectacle of snow goose hunting makes it more than worth the extreme effort and planning it often requires.
"Snow goose hunting tests the knowledge and skill of the hunter like no other form of waterfowl hunting I have ever experienced," said Hesby. "This challenge draws me to the bird, and because snow geese are very adaptive and seem to get smarter and smarter every year, a hunter needs to evolve and always be working to stay one step ahead of the game from season to season."
Retriever training opportunity
Along with the sheer enjoyment and excitement of light goose hunting, it can also be a valuable opportunity for hunters to give their dogs more experience retrieving, said Tony Vandemore, co-owner of Habitat Flats in Missouri.
"For those who enjoy hunting with dogs, the spring season is a great opportunity. Typically there are a lot of retrieves to be made, everything from marks in the decoys to long blinds," said Vandemore. "Dogs can mark snow geese falling at long distances, so it really helps with their marking. In my mind, the best way to 'make' a good gun dog is to kill a lot of birds over them and give them a lot of opportunities, and that's what snow goose hunting is all about. And it doesn't hurt that the main goal is to help contain the mid-continent light goose population, as they are destroying their breeding ground on the tundra."