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Greater Snow Geese Face Hostile U.S. Wintering Grounds
by Sue Holloway


If you look out at night, you might see geese crossing over the silhouette of moon as they migrate southward.  Observing such scenes was more common before light pollution dimmed views of the night sky.  Such experience may also have been the reason that some folks long ago assumed birds journeyed to the lunar region in autumn.

Others had different explanations; Aristotle, for example, assumed that disappearing swallows hid in the mud, hibernating over the colder months.  Now scientists, using technology and global communication networks, tell more accurately where many species go.

We know that arctic terns traverse pole to pole.  And we recognize that the greater snow geese, chen caerulescens atlantica, which winter along the Atlantic coast from New Jersey to North Carolina, come down from Baffin, Bylot, Greenland, and other northernmost islands.

This year, greater snow geese appeared in early October at Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), Smyrna, Delaware.  That same week, after traveling thousands of miles from the arctic regions, the birds faced hunters’ shotguns.

When I arrived at Bombay Hook the last Sunday of October, I found a changed scene from prior years, with perhaps a third as many snow geese on the refuge as the same date last year.  In a subsequent phone conversation, refuge biologist Frank Smith admitted that numbers there are down from prior years.  His estimate was a higher number, perhaps 35-40,000 snow geese on the refuge.

op-SnowGeeseOnShearnessPond.jpg (45064 bytes)But this was still less than half of last year’s figures.  At the Delaware Waterfowl Festival held at the end of October at Bombay Hook, a refuge guide estimated there were 90,000 snow geese roosting on Shearness Pool.  Population estimates for the late nineties identify up to 200,000 snow geese on the refuge.

(In 2000, tens of thousands of snow geese roosted on this Bombay Hook NWR. - To see an enlatged photo click on the photo or here.)

The birds are drawn to the refuge because of three main attractions: large ponds for roosting, or resting; planting of grains to supplement their diet of natural plants; and provision of sanctuary from guns.

The refuge’s large roosting ponds were artificially created, with flood gates to control water levels.  Three of them, Shearness, Raymond, and Bear Swamp Pond, generally provide roosting for tens of thousands of birds, including snow and Canada geese, tundra swans, pintails, northern shovelers, loons, blue winged teal, green winged teal, harlequin ducks, mallards and black ducks, grebes.

op-ShearnessDry.jpg (80612 bytes)This year, two of the ponds are drained, and no waterfowl enjoys this safe place to rest. Management wants the snow geese "dispersed" off the refuge, to areas where hunters stand in wait, Smith informed me.

(This year, the same pond held no water and no waterfowl.)

In addition, no standing corn was left this year for the hungry flocks.  In prior years, the tradition has been to plant up to 1100 acres with various grains and grasses, and leave 25-30 acres of corn not harvested. This year, management left no standing corn.

Although Mr. Smith informs us that the roosting ponds are dry for lack of rain in autumn, this could become a permanent scenario, according to the September, 2001, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on Light Goose Management.

Under the preferred alternative, B, for the latest goal of increasing the kill off of greater snow geese, the Service hopes to "alter impoundment water levels in order to create roosting areas and attract birds near hunted sites, or eliminate roosting areas to encourage birds to move to areas where hunting does occur." (p. 9)

The notion of "alteration of habitat programs to reduce food availability for, and make habitats less attractive to, light geese," is also listed under this plan, and is already in effect.

What is the effect on the geese?  Not just a loss of numbers, or of mass in the flock.  These birds are consummately family oriented and communal, feeding and roosting in flocks of tens of thousands.  It is, indeed, the sight of spectacular snow geese flocks that entices millions of people out to refuges across the nation during the cold months.

What I found at Bombay Hook was fewer geese in accessible viewing areas – sometimes, virtually none in sight or heard.  The snow geese seldom flew low, when they did appear. Random isolated skeins sometimes dotted the sky, with the geese flying much higher than last year, specks of glitter without the amazing raucousness of prior years.

There were also isolated loners, unusual with geese that normally remain together as families until returning to breeding grounds in spring.  But this year, some geese, perhaps in mourning, did not join other groups, not only in flight, but on the one remaining roosting pond.

The geese are not only being dispersed off the refuge, but the communal sense of flocks is being fragmented.  Forced into survival mood, the geese are quieter, the joyous presence of former flocks, silenced.

In 1998, when U.S. and Canadian policy on snow geese shifted, calling for the slaughter of millions of snow geese nationwide, the original rationale offered was destruction of tundra breeding grounds by increasingly larger flocks.

However, greater snow geese colonies breeding grounds were not even claimed to be in jeopardy at that time, and still are not.  Should the greater snow geese flock be further diminished, from an estimated 800,000 to 500,000 birds?

The kill now begins the moment they enter wintering refuges like Bombay Hook, and occurs even on the refuge; it goes on into the spring.  Last year, in Quebec, about 55,000 snow geese were killed while staging, or resting feeding in preparation for the final great thrust northward.

The proposed Alternative B of the EIS would also institute the use of currently illegal means of hunting, including electronic calls and unplugged shotguns, which have long been recognized as unethical.

My recommendation: stop hunting on the refuge. USFWS’s alternative A of no additional hunt still has not only regular hunting season in place, but the added "conservation" hunts before and after seasons for other waterfowl. Please send comments on behalf of the geese.

Send comments by Nov. 28 to:

Jon Andrew, Chief, Division of Migratory Bird management, USFWS, 4401 North Fairfax Dr, Suite 634, Arlington, VA 22203; or e-mail: [email protected].  Or contact Jon Andrew at 703-358-1714.

Note: Adapted from an article in The Source, The Sound, The Harbor News, The Guilford Courier, and The Valley Courier, Connecticut. Reprinted by permission of Shoreline Publishing, Inc., Madison, CT

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