By Dennis Smith
Thanks to television documentaries and movies like “The Lion King,” most of us are aware of the dramatic migrations of wildebeest, zebras and gazelles in Kenya and Tanzania. But one of the largest wildlife migrations in the world is that of the North American lesser snow goose, and it goes virtually unnoticed by all but some waterfowl hunters, wildlife photographers and grain farmers.
Approximately 2 million wildebeest combined with roughly 800,000 zebra and antelope gather to form one super African herd, but that number pales in comparison to the mammoth flock of 8 to 10 million snow geese that wing their way seasonally from the Arctic tundra and Hudson Bay salt marshes of northern Canada to winter feeding grounds along the Texas Gulf Coast and other coastal areas in the American south. On their 5,000-mile journey down the Central Flyway, they follow the snow line south, stopping to rest and feed in some of the richest farmland in America. This is not necessarily a good thing. In fact, it’s bad.
In 1940, there were fewer than 1 million snow geese on the continent, but, due in part to changes in the agricultural landscape in the Central Flyway, their numbers soared astronomically, and today scientific estimates run to 10 million. Snow geese feed by grubbing for the roots and tubers of arctic plants rather than grazing on exposed grasses and foliage as other waterfowl species do.
With the increasing snow goose populations, huge areas of nesting habitat for other bird species are already uprooted, exposing the barren soil to evaporation. As the soil dries, salts migrate to the surface from subterranean layers, choke out the edible plants and render the soil incapable of supporting plant life altogether. The loss of suitable habitat leads to overcrowding during the critical breeding and nesting period; overcrowding provokes the spread of avian diseases and even more habitat destruction. According to wildlife biologists, the resulting die-off of shorebirds and waterfowl because of starvation, avian cholera and other diseases will be staggering if snow goose populations aren’t brought into balance with the habitat.
To thin the population and protect breeding ground habitat, liberal regulations on snow goose hunting were implemented in 1999 following passage of the Arctic Tundra Conservancy Act. Electronic calling devices were permitted, the standard three-shell magazine limit was removed, harvest limits were removed completely and the snow goose season extended until the end of April. As of June 2015, the snow goose population is still estimated to be in the tens of millions, far below the 500,000 recommended by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials.
Jim Gammonly, avian researcher for Colorado Wildlife and Wildlife, recently said, “Hunting remains the most effective tool we have for controlling these wildlife populations.” The single best hope for averting a monumental ecological and wildlife calamity lies with American sportsmen. Hunting and harvesting excess animal populations is not only defensible and justified, it’s a biological necessity. The monstrous flocks you’ll see on the reservoirs and grain fields east of Sterling this time of year are fascinating, but they’re big trouble.