Monday, February 06, 2017

A Skein of Geese, a Sign of Hope

This skein of Canada Geese flew past me yesterday -- a reminder that what was lost has largely been regained.

It is hard to describe the destruction of American wildlife between 1850 and 1900.

By 1850 all the Elk had been shot out in the East, the Forest Bison pushed into complete extinction, the Wolf extirpated from everywhere in the East but the Maine woods.

Between 1850 and 1900 the great herds of Plains Bison were cut down to within a few hundred animals of extinction, White Tail Deer and Wild Turkey were virtually extirpated along most of the Atlantic seaboard, geese and ducks of every type were slaughtered in dizzying numbers by shrapnel fired from cannon used by market hunters, and the beaver had simply vanished from every state East of Ohio. The Carolina Parakeet and Passenger Pigeon were gone, as was the Eskimo Curlew -- birds which once numbered in the millions.

The turn around in American wildlife populations began with passage of the Lacey Act in 1907, which banned market hunting.

A critical turn around in the fortunes of wild geese and duck occurred in 1935 when live decoys -- wild birds that had been trapped and made flightless with pinned or clipped wings -- was made illegal.

It looked like the ban on live decoys had come too late for some species, however. One of those species was the Giant Canada Goose which was thought to be extinct -- or nearly extinct -- in the wild.

The good news is that while there were almost no wild Canada Geese left, captive decoy goose populations still existed. With the 1935 ban on the use of decoy geese, most of these animals were released into marshes and onto ponds. Unable to fly, many of these animals quickly fell prey to fox and dogs, but some managed to grow back their feathers or live long enough to reproduce.

During World War II and into the 1950s, the descendants of once-captive Giant Canada Geese slowly multiplied in remote marshes and isolated ponds. While a natural recovery seemed to be occurring, these descendants of once-captive geese were largely non-migratory since, after three or four generations in captivity prior to 1935, they no longer had any "lead geese" to show them the way North.

In the 1960s the Giant Canada Geese population remained so low across the U.S. that it was considered extirpated in most states and near-extinct in the wild. In order to prevent extinction, a systematic effort was made to captive-raise Giant Canada Geese and introduce small flocks back into areas where they had once existed.

The introduction of Canada Geese was a phenomenal success. Absent hunting and disease, small flocks of Canada Geese grew by 10 to 20 percent percent a year -- a population doubling time of just 3 to 7 years time.

In a relatively short period of time, states saw a phenomenal growth in their Giant Canada Goose populations. Ohio, to cite on example, began with just 20 captive-raised birds in 1956, but by 2002 had a population of over 140,000 birds. Today almost all the geese you see in the Eastern U.S,. and Midwest are Giant Canada Geese.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates the current resident Giant Canada Goose population of the U.S. at 4 million birds and growing rapidly, with a small number of truly migratory Giant Canada Geese still found in the mid-Atlantic flyway.

Giant Canada Geese have also been introduced into other parts of the world, most notably Europe, where they are also thriving.

The "goose problem" today is not extinction but an over-abundance of geese in areas where heavy population densities may inconvenience golfers and cause eutrophication of farm ponds.

A boom in geese populations, however is not too bad a problem as problems go, and it has certainly been a benefit for fox which frequently raid Canada Goose nests in order to feed rapidly growing kits.

The rise of Canada Geese has also created a boom in sport hunting which now pumps hundreds of millions of dollars a year into rural economies. No one has benefited more from the demise of commercial market hunting than the sport hunter.

With the demise of market hunting, and with the assistance of capable wildlife managers, the Giant Canada Goose has returned, as has the wild turkey, the beaver, the bison, the elk, white tail deer, alligator and even the wolf. Truly, these are the good old days.


1 comment:

Noel said...

Great story. As a kid living near a good-sized lake in Western NY, my father would call me outside to see geese fly over. That might happen once a year. Forty years later they fly over the same area buy the thousands each fall, and the resident population around the lake numbers in the hundreds.
Mallards often semi-domesticate around food sources and stop migrating, yet the population never explodes. I suppose their eating habits make water more of a necessity, but I can hope that they see a similar tipping point.