Wildlife scientists want Inuit hunters to kill more Arctic-nesting geese in an effort to manage populations so out of control the birds are destroying their own habitat.
Experts acknowledge the plan isn’t likely to work and admit they don’t know what to do about ballooning numbers of Ross’s geese that are denuding large areas of the North.
“It’s really unprecedented in waterfowl management history to have a population that’s out of control and can’t be controlled through hunting,” said Jim Leafloor of the Canadian Wildlife Service. “We’re not really sure at this point where it’s all going to lead.”
Ross’s geese — which migrate between Canada’s northern coastline and as far south as California — were once hunted so extensively that their numbers were down to a few thousand in the 1930s. Environmental protections and the spread of agricultural practices that favour bird foraging have changed all that.
Kiel Drake of Bird Studies Canada estimates there are now about two million of the small, white geese. Together with about five million lesser snow geese — which have tripled their numbers since the 1970s and have similar habits — that spells big, honking trouble.
“It’s the way they feed,” said Leafloor. “They strip vegetation from fairly large areas.”
Sky-filling flocks are hammering their tundra nesting grounds in the Queen Maud Bird Sanctuary along the Northwest Passage. The destruction follows their migration path south, through the coastal marshes of Hudson Bay and James Bay.
“A lot of that habitat is already destroyed,” said Leafloor. “The losses there just continue to mount and expand into other areas.”
Grazing geese strip the land bare, exposing soil and peat. Recovery is slow in the Arctic’s cold climate and poor soil.
Ripping out vegetation also changes the flow of soil moisture. It draws salts to the surface and prevents normal plants from growing back. That, in turn, affects other birds and animals.
Last week, wildlife service officials asked the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board to agree to have Ross’s geese declared overabundant, which would allow managers to expand the hunting season. The board has made a recommendation to federal Environment Minister Peter Kent, who is to make the final decision.
“We think the population of (Ross’s geese) might be small enough that it could be controlled through hunting,” Leafloor said. “That remains to be seen.”
Snow geese were declared overabundant in 1999. Hunters are allowed to shoot them spring through fall, but it hasn’t made much difference.
“We think that’s an example of a population that’s beyond the ability of hunters to control.”
Nor is Mother Nature likely to take a hand by reducing numbers through overcrowding and disease. If their regular habitat becomes too degraded or crowded, the birds just find another area and strip it.
Others stay behind and eke out a living on their original feeding grounds, preventing recovery.
“The problem expands as the population expands,” Leafloor said.
No one really knows how much of the Arctic is already affected. And no one really knows where the problem is headed.
“Nobody knows what the limits are,” said Leafloor.
“We don’t know what the carrying capacity of the Arctic is. We don’t know how much food is there and how much natural habitat is available to support these geese.
“What we’re doing right now is monitoring them and watching the changes in population size and documenting changes in their range.
“But beyond that, what do you do with multimillions of geese?”