Snow Geese Destroying Environment:
US Must Vastly
Reduce Numbers
Discovery News Brief

Their numbers soaring, millions of snow geese are threatening one of North America's treasured ecosystems with their voracious appetites. And government biologists are grappling with some rather extraordinary suggestions on what to do about the too-fruitful birds.
One solution: Kill nearly 3 million of them, about half the population. But how?
So far, napalm has been mentioned, and along with poison, has been ruled out. But by next winter thousands of shotgun-toting hunters may be let loose on the wily birds that annually migrate from the Gulf Coast to the Canadian arctic.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this summer is expected to propose a strategy of attack against the Anser caerulescens, or lesser snow goose, alias white goose.
Thirty years ago, there were fewer than 800,000 of the birds. Today, the population has been estimated as high as 6 million, growing at the rate of 250,000 birds a year.
There are so many of them that when they return to their summer nesting grounds in Canada's Arctic, they devastate the fragile tundra, eating away the surface vegetation and creating what one biologist calls "a botanical desert" where vegetation may never recover.
"Their massive numbers put such a high demand on the limited food supplies that vast tracts of the Arctic have been converted to highly saline, bare soil where few plants can grow," says Bruce Batt, the chief biologist of Ducks Unlimited, who also is chairman of a special U.S.-Canadian working group on the snow geese problem.
Over the 1,200 miles of wetland along the Hudson and James bays, a third of the salt marshes already have been destroyed by the geese, and nearly another third is heavily damaged, biologists say. Once destroyed, it will take decades to restore the vegetation -- if it ever can be restored -- because of salinity of the soil and Arctic conditions.
"This is an ecosystem in peril," Batt told a House Resources subcommittee hearing recently as Congress considered legislation calling for the Interior Department to address the problem.
Paul Schmidt, chief of migratory birds management at the Fish and Wildlife Service, agrees that the snow geese population must be reduced dramatically and soon. Otherwise "we will likely witness the destruction of an ecosystem that is important to other migratory birds and other wildlife species," he said.
The joint U.S.-Canadian task force concluded the best approach is to attack adult geese as they traverse the country's heartland from the Gulf Coast each spring to Canada's Arctic and back before winter.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to propose giving hunters open season on the birds by expanding the hunting days, scrapping bag limits, allowing use of bait and hunting in areas now off-limits.
But that may not be enough, admits Schmidt.
Veteran hunters say the birds, whose average age is 8 years, have become expert at using refuge areas for protection, are rarely fooled by decoys and are known to scramble away from even a glimpse of danger. Hunters now kill about 500,000 of the birds annually; yet their population continues to grow 5 percent a year.
"There's no silver bullet," said Rep. Wayne Gilchrest,R-Md., who held last week's hearing on the problem.Noting Canada has a big stake, he suggested maybe "a joint military campaign" was in order. U.S. and Canadian troops might be used to gather snow geese eggs in the tundra, Gilchrest suggested.
Batt, the geese expert, said that wouldn't work. You'd have to destroy 2 million eggs just to stabilize the population, he told Gilchrest. And the tundra area is remote and treacherous, also home to hundreds of polar bears and other potentially dangerous animals.
Most environmental groups say they'd hate to see all those birds killed, but see little choice.
"The problem is of our own making," says Frank Gill, president of the National Audubon Society. It goes back on America's agricultural successes.
The snow geese population has thrived because they annually gorge themselves off the abundant grains in the agricultural heartland from the Great Plains to the Gulf Coast. The unlimited food allows them to survive Canada's winter, resulting in fewer fatalities.
Associated Press, Copyright 1998
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