- 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
- 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
- "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
- "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
- 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
- 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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