Following their breeding season each autumn, millions of Ross’s geese make the long trip from the Canadian Arctic to the southern United States, where they spend the winter months.
But behind this classic image of iconic birds making an epic journey is a serious problem. The geese have bred so successfully that the Canadian Wildlife Service estimates there are now 1.5 to 2.5 million of them, up from the estimated 100,000 that existed in the 1960s. The geese have caused significant ecological damage to their feeding grounds in the Arctic by stripping the tundra of vegetation, which in the region’s cold climate and poor soil takes a long time to recover. Jim Leaflor, of the Canadian Wildlife Service, says the increase in population is partly due to the increased presence of waste grains and agricultural foraging along the birds’ migratory routes.
In June the Canadian Wildlife Service proposed the federal government designate the Ross’s goose in the eastern Arctic an overabundant species, a classification the United States applied to the bird in 1999. Environment Canada, which is reviewing the proposal, can declare the birds overabundant if it’s found that their population growth rate has or will threaten the conservation of migratory birds or their habitats, or if it threatens agricultural or environmental interests. Such a designation would allow for increased control measures, including a spring harvest.
Jim Leaflor, one of the primary authors of the Canadian Wildlife Service proposal, explains that although the population of Ross’s geese in Canada is not as large as other type of similar birds, it is increasing at a much faster rate. “By implementing a spring harvest, we hope that the population is still small enough that it can be controlled using additional hunting pressure,” he says. “We already know from experience that if you don’t act early, it’s impossible to use hunting alone to regulate a population once it becomes massive.”
How big an impact a spring harvest would have, however, remains unknown. But Leafloor isn’t worried. “The likelihood that overhunting would arise because of the harvest is extremely thin,” he says, adding that the commercial hunting markets that necessitated conservation measures for Ross’s geese more than a century ago no longer exist.
If the proposal is accepted and a spring harvest is initiated, hunters in the Arctic could see the current restrictions lifted as early as 2015.