Every spring, giant flocks of Greater Snow Geese stop along the banks of the St. Lawrence River to rest and refuel on their annual migration to their breeding grounds on the Arctic tundra. The sights and sounds of a sea of white geese feeding in a field are a marvel to visitors, but a nightmare to Quebec farmers—who suffer nearly a million dollars in crop damage each year as a result.
In the early 1900s there were only a few thousand Greater Snow Geese in Canada, but the creation of refuges, the introduction of laws prohibiting spring hunting, and the banning of sport hunting in the United States before 1975 enabled the population to take off. The species count jumped to 20,000 by 1940 and almost 70,000 by the end of the 1960s, by which time the geese had already begun feeding on farmland. A decade later, agricultural regions of the birds’ staging area east of Quebec City were being plagued.
Boosted by this abundant new source of food, the birds’ reproductive success increased. This, combined with a drop in the number of hunters and the goose’s lack of popularity as a game bird in the US, caused the population to explode tenfold over the past two decades. By the spring of 1999, the species numbered just short of a million, and had expanded its staging area from 80 to approximately 400 kilometres of land along the St. Lawrence River.
Environment Canada scientists in Quebec became involved in the issue in the early 1990s, when the provincial and federal agriculture departments began compensating farmers for goose-caused crop damage. Effective intervention was needed to avoid the kind of acute habitat destruction caused by the overpopulation of the Lesser Snow Goose a mid-continental sub-species that is destroying its breeding habitat on the west coasts of James and Hudson bays, and causes up to $3 million damage to farmland each year. This extensive degradation is affecting numerous other bird and animal species.
In 1996, the Canadian Wildlife Service in Quebec formed a multi-stakeholder Greater Snow Goose Committee made up of wildlife and agricultural managers at all levels of government, scientists, farmers, birdwatchers, conservationists and tourist operators in order to find ways to tackle the issue, while at the same time maintaining economic spin-offs from tourism and hunting that generate about $21 million a year in Quebec.
Canadian and American scientists with the Arctic Goose Joint Venture gathered information on the species’ population dynamics, and recommended stabilizing the population by 2002. To achieve this, the group recommended doubling the current rate of harvest to about 24 per cent of the population per year by implementing a spring conservation hunt, increasing quotas, and permitting the use of electronic calls, baiting, and lure crops. As a result, Canada, the U.S. and Mexico agreed to amend regulations in staging and wintering areas to allow the species to be controlled for conservation purposes.
The multi-stakeholder committee supported the decision to implement a spring hunt in 1999 for the first time since 1916, when Canada and the U.S. signed the migratory bird treaty. Although organizers expected some 5000 hunters to register, the total topped nearly 14 000, with 44,000 birds harvested between mid-April and the end of May. Combined with the previous fall harvest and the American harvest over the same period, that total came to about 250,000 Greater Snow Geese, or almost 24 per cent of the fall population as hoped.
In 1999, agricultural losses in green crops were down 45% over 1998, with a 38% reduction in the number of hectares affected. However, there was a 24% increase in grain crop damage, despite the fact that the number of hectares affected was similar in both years.
While the hunt takes place again this spring, Environment Canada will complete a document detailing other work that needs to be done on the issue including more scientific research into and monitoring of the carrying capacity of wintering, staging, and breeding habitats, and studies of the socio-economic and ecological problems associated with overabundance.