AR Philosophy > Opinionatedly Yours

"Opinionatedly Yours"
#6: October 20, 1997
Snow Geese and the Final Solution School of Wildlife Management
By Barry Kent MacKay

Forget oil tankers, gas lines, gold mines and other forms of resource extraction in the delicate tundra ecosystems of the far north. Forget the hazy particulate pollution or the presence of DDT in the tissue of animals who live nearer to the North Pole than to any direct source of the chemical. Forget the hunting of endangered species, or global warming, or any of the other threats to wildlife populations of the arctic. Now there's a new threat that would seem to dwarf them all: What is threatening wildlife, we are told, is wildlife. And the solution to what is being called a problem is a significant expansion in killing wild animals.

That call for increased killing may bring contentment to many of the bang-bang boys of the hook and bullet fraternity. Always eager to find an excuse to blow something away, this time they've come up with a dandy.

The alleged "fault" lies at the other end of the North American continent, according to the theorizing that leads to the identification of this new threat. In fact, one region responsible is right where I began typing these words, in the Central Valley of California. (Being somewhat of a migrant myself, I finished in my home office, in Canada.)

The Sheer Abundance of Snow Geese

Let's look at the southern end of the threat. Flashback to a winter day in California, a couple of years ago. I was visiting API's Sacramento office from my office in Canada. On a weekend a friend and I drove through the flat expanse of the Central Valley, north of Sacramento, to a place called Gray Lodge. Before we reached our destination, we stopped several places to admire huge flocks of waterfowl. Snow geese and tundra swans were particularly evident because of their larger size and brilliant white coloration. But the flocks of birds included large numbers of white-fronted geese, mallards, northern pintails, northern shovelers, American wigeon, green-winged teal, cinnamon teal and other waterfowl species, plus coots, grebes, herons, and other waterbirds. The flooded fields of the floor of the valley, including the extensive rice fields, were ideal "staging" and wintering habitats for these birds.

Eventually we reached Gray Lodge, where we enjoyed unparalleled birding on the loop road that winds through the part of the refuge where hunting is not allowed. Off in the distance we could hear the occasional booming of shotguns.

What was staggering to the point of sometimes overwhelming the senses was the sheer abundance of snow geese. There were huge, massed, swirling flocks of geese and most of them were snow geese. There were great, long, trembling skeins of geese stitched across a gray sky as far into the distance as we could see. There were massed flocks of them filling the air with their wonderfully wild and discordant honking. It seemed they must constantly bump each other, so many there were in the sky at one time, but no such accidents occurred.

In the tule and cattail-lined waterways beside the road the geese seemed, in places, to fill every space like a living and animated carpet of white birds, the immature birds still toned in soft grays shades. It reminded me of the early descriptions of wildlife written by the first Europeans to reach the New World, before the unleashing of technological mayhem so reduced the great schools of fish, flocks of birds, and herds of mammals they encountered.

Is that a problem?

Bouncing Off the Satellites

Shift now to a place none of us has ever been; the edge of outer space. It's a place where satellites orbit the planet, monitoring from their distant viewpoints what goes on so far below. And one of the things those satellites show is an area of red coloration around the shore of Hudson Bay -- the expansive, inland sea that takes up so much of the northern part of our continent. If you care about animals and keep yourself well informed you may be hearing quite a bit about that red strip in the months ahead.

The situation is a classic reflection of human hubris, the determination based not on science, compassion, or objectivity, but on subjective human opinion of what "should" or "should not" be. And that red band around Hudson Bay should not be, according to those wanting to visit mass slaughter on the snow geese of North America. The extra killing is to be achieved, in part, by the legalization of electronic calling devices for snow goose hunting; the legalization of baiting in "special snow goose population reduction seasons"; the provision of additional snow goose hunting in and around state, provincial and federal refuges and the extenuation of the legal hunting season for snow geese in the U.S. beyond the current restrictions (March 10).

Let's pause for a brief bit of explanation. What we are talking about, in part, is a beautiful arctic goose called the snow goose. There are two subspecies. The more common is the "lesser" snow goose, which breeds across the arctic from Wrangel Island (in Russian waters) east as far as Baffin Island. The very slightly larger "greater" snow goose breeds in the eastern arctic, mostly on islands in north Baffin Bay and northwest Greenland. The lesser, commonly, and the greater, rarely, have a "blue" color phase, formerly considered a separate species called the "blue goose." We are also talking about the much less common and distinctly smaller Ross's goose, which nests on islands in the higher latitudes, generally speaking, although its range is expanding. It also has a blue phase, although it is extremely rare. Collectively these two species, constituting three similar forms, are called the "white geese."

That there has, in this century, been an overall increase in white geese is beyond question. The Arctic Goose Habitat Working Group estimates an increase of approximately 5% per year. There are many more-or-less discreet breeding populations showing strong fidelity to specific migration routes and wintering grounds. In other words the picture is complex. But it is dominated by observations showing significant changes in at least some breeding habitat, and by reasonably objective statistics showing an increase during the last three or four decades, the only period of time for which reliable censusing has been possible. For example, a mid-continent indexing of wintering lesser snow geese has shown a 300% increase, from 0.8 million birds in 1969 to 2.7 million in 1994, according to unpublished data of the Mississippi and Central Flyway Councils, cited by the working group. It is further estimated that the central and western arctic breeding grounds of the lesser snow goose "now each contain more than 500,000 breeding birds."

Genetic Swamping

The Ross's goose is hard to distinguish from the larger but very similar snow goose, particularly as the two species intermingle during migration and on their wintering grounds and also may share breeding grounds, sometimes even hybridizing.

Back in the 1950s, when I was a kid, but even then fascinated by birds and wildlife, Ross's goose was considered to be a species at risk of extinction. Hunting was not allowed. However the species has since recovered. As the International Council for Bird Preservation (ICBP) puts it, the Ross's goose is

Not globally threatened. Total population estimated at 77,300 birds in 1976. Increasing in recent decades, although still legally hunted in places. Average wintering population in North America in period 1956-1974 estimated at 23,400 birds. Potential threats include dependence of large part of population on very limited number of wintering grounds, making it very vulnerable to disease or natural disasters ...

Fear is also expressed that the fact that Ross's geese hybridize with the snow goose, producing fertile offspring, could cause problems. The concern is a phenomenon known as genetic swamping, whereby the less common of two species can become extinct as a distinct form. Snow geese also have hybridized in the wild with Canada geese and white-fronted species. As long as populations of these various species remain robust, there is no reason for concern. Indeed, hybridization is quite common among many groups of birds, including ducks and geese.

The working group claims "... almost 400,000 [Ross's geese] migrated from the breeding grounds in the early 1980s." New colonies have been established in recent years, and historically known colonies have expanded dramatically. The report goes on to mention increases in various populations of Canada geese, as well as the population in the eastern, "greater" race of the snow goose, which migrates through eastern North America to winter along the Atlantic coast.

Grubbing & Grazing

In my opinion perhaps the best demonstrated of a spectrum of "environmental" concerns given, is that for the salt water marshes bordering Hudson and James Bay. The concern derives from a feeding style inelegantly called "grubbing," plus grazing.

Grazing means eating grasses and other vegetation at or just above the soil line. Many plants, particularly the grasses, have evolved to withstand grazing, and, with the root systems intact, can regrow after the tops of the plants have been removed by grazing or fire (or grass cutting in the case of lawns). Both grazing and fire also contribute nutriments back into the soil. When the source of the removal of the aboveground parts of the plants moves on -- be it a flock of grazing geese, a herd of grazing mammals, or a fire -- the grasses can regenerate.

Grubbing means grazing that goes below soil level, removing roots or rhizomes that would otherwise grow above ground.

Put simply, the removal of plant life leads to increased rates of evaporation of water in the soil. This drying effect increases the salinity of the soil as salt is left behind through the increase in evaporation. This leads to a reduction of the kinds of nutriment-rich plants that feed geese and other species, absorb salts, retain moisture, and retard erosion. The end result is a process of "desertification," whereby a once fertile marshy area becomes significantly less capable of sustaining various life forms, including, ultimately, the geese themselves if the damage to grasslike plants and sedges becomes "permanent."

This is an oversimplification of concern expressed for one type of habitat. Damage is also attributed to sand dunes and beach ridge plant communities, coastal meadow grasslands, and willow communities. Although these are relatively transitory ecosystems, it is claimed that the increase in white geese prevents the process of succession whereby a plant community slowly changes through the years, effectively creating a series of habitats supportive of various flora and fauna.

Anthropogenic Effects

The factors contributing to the undisputed increase in various populations of snow, Ross's, and Canada geese are anthropogenic, meaning they are the results of human endeavor. To understand the concern it's first important to realize that, again speaking very generally, a species of animal that has unlimited food and unlimited breeding ground or habitat at other stages in its life cycle, will theoretically increase its population size indefinitely. As there are no unlimited foods or habitats for any species of animal (including human), no species can possibly increase indefinitely. What prevents that from happening are called "limiting factors." Although the ultimate limiting factor is the amount of food and space available, other less significant limiting factors can be predation, disease, and accident. The size of a population of animals of a given species which the available habitat can provide enough food and space for is called the "carrying capacity."

The carrying capacity of the arctic for the white geese was obviously not surpassed during those years when the populations of those geese were so much lower than they are now. There were plenty of places for those geese to expand their numbers into, which they are now doing.

There was something preventing them from doing so previously, it's argued, and that something was the carrying capacity of the areas where the birds spend the winter (wintering grounds) and the areas where they pause to feed during migration (staging grounds). And that carrying capacity was increased by agriculture. The huge increase of growth in a variety of plant species that are highly nutritious to geese meant that a far greater number of migrating and wintering birds, especially the inexperienced immatures, were able to find food and thus survive. Irrigation flooded what were formerly dry areas, like California's Central Valley, where I first enjoyed the spectacle of so many thousands of white geese when I made my initial visit to Gray Lodge. I now try to get there each winter.

Historically, the report says, wintering habitats for "lesser" snow geese along the east coast and the Gulf of Mexico were mostly salt marshes where true rushes and cordgrass grew. The area that could support wintering flocks of white geese along the coasts of Texas and Louisiana, for example, were about 200,000 hectares (ha). However, after the 1940s, "lesser" snow geese began moving into flooded rice fields adjacent those coastal marshes. Nearly 400,000 ha of land was in rice production at the time. Meanwhile, coastal marshes were being degraded or lost to various forms of "development," including oil and gas procurement, urban expansion, dredging, and land filling, although at least one expert claims that there was still sufficient coastal habitat protected to support the white geese at their former numbers. How, if wintering habitat expansion is so crucial as an explanation for the current increase, there could still be room in coastal marshes is not explained. The obvious answer would be because if, as the report indicates, the amount of wintering habitat is the limiting factor that prevented previous expansion, then obviously the geese had been depleted below what could be accommodated by that habitat. When a species' numbers are thus depressed, and habitat is available in the absence of other limiting factors (such as predation, or excessive hunting) the species will increase to fill the habitat.

While rice production is identified as a major factor in the enhanced survival of young birds, the report also indicates that manipulation on behalf of hunters, providing wide areas of shallow wetlands, also facilitated survival by providing resting and roosting sites for birds who were fattening on the croplands. While the hunters benefited from having more living targets, the net result was an overall increase in the geese themselves.

Meanwhile, the report continues, in other parts of the continent, increases in various grain crops provided still more food for migrant birds in the mid-continent and mid-Atlantic coastal regions, more than compensating for losses of inland wetlands and coastal marshes. The conclusion is that the previous natural mortality of wintering birds, reduced by agricultural development on the migration routes and wintering grounds, must be replaced by human intervention in the form of increased killing of those birds.

Why? There are several ways to answer that question. The answer the report gives is to save arctic habitats and the species that depend on them. I would suggest another way of answering the question is to point to the overwhelming need some people feel to "control" nature. We humans are part of the problem (increased wintering habitat) and therefore should be part of the solution (increased killing).

Calling for Culling

I will resist the temptation to dwell on the irony of our species, which has destroyed so much more habitat than all other species combined could and whose population increase remains unchecked, having the effrontery to be lethally critical of another species, except to point out that there's nothing new here. Whenever any species expands its population, or rebounds in numbers from being depleted, there are calls to "control" it. The coyote immigrating into new regions of eastern North America in response to anthropogenic effects; the increase in Canada geese in urban areas; the starlings and blackbirds and crows who occupy post-breeding massive communal roosts; the red foxes who have moved into valley and coastal areas of California; the abalone-munching sea otters who have dared to rebound from endangerment along our west coast; the gray seal, once considered extinct in North America, which now is increasing to former population sizes on the east coast; the double-crested cormorants whose population is so dramatically increasing in central North America; the ring-billed and herring gulls who are increasing along the east coast; the white-tailed deer throughout almost all of their range; the salmon-loving sea lions of the Pacific Northwest ... all these and a great many more species have triggered alarmist calls to cull back their numbers, always on "environmental" grounds, and always with reference to the anthropogenic cause of the increase (ironically even if, in the cases of such things as sea otters and Ross's goose, an increase in population was what was desired in the first place and the major anthropogenic factor was leaving them alone). Even the very seriously endangered Mediterranean monk seal should be culled, according to some fisherman.

The fact that is hard for us to understand, it seems, is that animal populations are dynamic and are always changing in response to environmental changes -- and the environment changes in response to human activities. In fact, one of the factors cited as possibly contributing to the overall range expansions of white geese was warming trends in the higher latitudes. If these, in turn, reflect global warming and, as so many experts now contend, global warming is both happening now and is anthropogenic, then changes are going to happen, like it or not. In my own province of Ontario, which embraces half the coastal lowlands of James Bay and nearly a quarter of the coastal lowlands of Hudson Bay, the government of the day has introduced legislation called "Lands for Life" which, if implemented, will effectively give control of the vast forestlands of northern Ontario over to private commercial pulp and timber interests. The negative effects of the massive deforestation that will follow make a mockery of anything the geese can do.

Apart from that, animals always do affect their environments. One of the favorite tricks of the final solution school of wildlife management is to build "exclosures." These are essentially fences that enclose a part of a given habitat to prevent a certain species from having access to the vegetation therein. This produces a dramatic photograph that shows a defoliated area, outside the exclosure, in contrast to the lush growth within the exclosure. Sure enough, that is exactly what this report contains. The problem is that it is the inside of the exclosure that is really artifactual. Animals do, after all, eat vegetation (or other animals) and the question of what is "too many" animals or "too little" vegetation (or prey species of other animals) becomes a value statement of the person making the decision. The final solution school of wildlife management considers it to be an "over"population when the numbers cause something that they don't like to happen.

Perhaps the best example is the African elephant, an animal with a massive appetite for vegetation. But the effects of that appetite alter the environment in which the elephant lives. We (usually) don't consider the effect to be bad (unless we want to have an excuse to cull elephants and sell their ivory) because we're used to them. We don't think about the plants and animals that don't live in elephant habitat, we think of the ones who do -- the huge numbers of herbivores who "benefit" from the elephant's appetite.

Nevertheless, we can't help but be a part of all this, and if our values do include concern for other species, is there a problem? The report concludes there is, but it does not prove its point to those of us lacking the bias of its writers -- those of us who are not card-carrying devotees of the final solution school of wildlife management.

A Fundamental Question

First, is the increase in white geese real, or is the species, in response both to environmental change and to decrease in sport hunting, simply rebounding to former levels? The question is important, because if North America held equally large numbers of geese in the past, then obviously both the arctic and the species who live there managed to survive whatever the geese did.

The report cannot give an answer to this fundamental question. "Before this century," it states, "accounts of abundance are narrative and anecdotal. None of the estimates was documented or quantified for comparison with modern methods. All of them precede the era of aerial surveys and none involved a coordinated, simultaneous air or ground survey. We summarize these below, but urge caution in interpretation because methods of numerical estimation are usually anecdotal and not statistically reliable."

In other words, they don't know, but because those "usually anecdotal and not statistically reliable" early reports blow holes in their theory, they would prefer you not believe them. The example given was from a text written by Arthur Cleveland Bent, who exhaustively researched birds in the early part of this century. Bent wrote of the "astonishing abundance" of the lesser snow goose (including the blue phase, then thought to be a separate species). There were, according to one account, up to "3.5 million on the Gulf coast in winter" and, according to another, "4-5 million in Manitoba in spring". One authority in 1932 estimated that there were 1.25 to 1.5 million of the geese in a single flock.

As one waterfowl expert put it, either these estimates were wildly exaggerated or the species has greatly declined in recent years. But if the latter were true, the working group's theory that the goose population is unprecedented, and thus capable of doing permanent damage to specified ecosystems, is unfounded. If the former were true, then obviously the species could be reaching unprecedented population levels.

The report is disingenuous on this important point: it states "Bent (1962) does not mention declines ..." That citation would suggest that there has been no decline in recent decades. But the citation refers to a reprint by Dover (a publisher specializing in reprinting older scientific works to make them available at affordable prices to contemporary buyers) of a book that was originally published in 1923! Casual reading might lead one to think that Bent concluded in 1962 that there had been no decline. In fact, the reference cited refers to sightings from the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries , and states in full: "On the fall migration, when the vast hordes of snow geese begin to wing their way southward from their Arctic summer homes, we begin to realize the astounding abundance of the species."

Historical Abundance?

While the nature of the habitat in the location might not have previously existed, was it unusual for me to see the abundance of birds I saw in California; something that could not have been experienced in earlier centuries because the species did not exist in such huge numbers? Bent cites Herbert W. Brandt who not only saw large numbers of birds in the first part of the current century, he even reports numbers of snow geese spending the summer in California:

Last year [he was writing in 1919 so presumably means 1918] for the first time known a couple of large flocks remained the entire summer. It was the most wonderful sight in bird life I ever saw, and it will never be forgotten as cloud after cloud of white and black birds took to wing and then settled down in a distant part of the marsh.

Mr. Kleberg told us that the geese we saw were just a few left from the great winter flocks, most of them having now departed for the northland. He has seen 500 acres of solid geese, he said, just one snow bank. He hunts them by taking his big Packard car and runs toward them on the prairies at 60 miles an hour. The wind is always blowing there and the geese must rise and fly against it; as they are overtaken they work the pump shotguns on them.

Reflective of the times they address, Bent's writing about waterfowl seem always to include such descriptions of mass slaughtering techniques. But none of this is mentioned in the report.

No one questions that the Ross's goose was previously rare, although how rare we don't know. Bent is again cited, as mentioning evidence of abundance prior to 1886. It would be more helpful to know the abundance of the species prior to European colonization, but we don't. We do know that Bent said that wintering Ross's geese in California were "often quite common" and because they had no innate fear of humans (humans being a relatively ineffective predator they would rarely have encountered prior to the arrival of Europeans with their guns), "many are shot for the market."

The report also refers to another paper, from 1918, supporting the suggestion that open market hunting may have contributed to the rarity of Ross's geese at the beginning of the century. No indication of the species being as rare as it was in the earlier decades of this century is given. It's as if the authors of the Arctic Goose Habitat Working Group report don't want to admit that the geese were once at population levels they are again approaching, or that the kind of wholesale slaughter they seek to impose upon the birds could have resulted in dramatic declines.

Information of the previous population levels of the "greater" snow geese are ambivalent at best and tend to indicate lower population levels. One authority is cited from personal communication (not a peer-reviewed scientific paper) as saying as a result of studying the "ancient literature" the species was probably never abundant in the 1500s through 1900. But even that source apparently wondered if that the more severe climate of that era (often referred to as the "little ice-age") might not have kept the population low, in which case the "greater" snow goose might now be again returning to levels that existed prior to the European invasion of the continent.

But times change and it's possible that even if (as would seem to be the case) the white geese are only returning to previous levels of abundance, that increase is having a negative impact on other species. The authors of the report seem to want readers to think so, but provide very little evidence.

The vegetation involved is widespread and abundant. No mammals, fish, or other non-avian vertebrate fauna are mentioned as being at risk (nor is it pointed out that increased goose flocks would enhance populations of their natural predators, such as arctic foxes, snowy owls and gyrfalcons).

The report does admit "The effects [of white goose population increases] have not been studied." It does say, "... the changes to soil salinity and decomposition processes likely result in significantly altered microfaunal changes resulting in loss of forage resources." It again cites unpublished sources as claiming that "... aquatic invertebrates may be less diverse and less abundant in ponds in areas of degraded vegetation." The report is filled with such qualifying words as "may" and "likely".

Wigeons, Shovelers, and Phalaropes

The real concern seems to be about birds. And yet few are mentioned. There is a very casual reference to ducks, with two species mentioned, the American wigeon and the northern shoveler. The former is distributed throughout much of North America, from Alaska to Quebec and as far south as northern California. The vast bulk of this huge range exists outside the area under discussion. The ICBP says of the species:

Not globally threatened. Abundant, with large population estimated at over 6,500,000 in early fall during mid 1970s in North America. Significant numbers also winter in South America, with concentrations of 2,000-3,550 birds in some areas of Venezuela, and up to 4,000 in the Cienaga Grande de Santa Marta, Columbia. In recent years, regularly wintering in Japan in very reduced numbers (less than 100). Has suffered habitat reduction and received intense hunting pressure, but numbers have remained quite stable in last few decades, mainly due to reserves established in the sites of most importance to this species.

The breeding range of the northern shoveler is even greater, extending throughout much of the temperate and higher altitudes of the northern hemisphere, from Alaska to Quebec in North America, and throughout much of Europe and northern Asia, as well. Of this species the ICBP says:

Not globally threatened. Fairly widespread and locally abundant. North American population estimated at 3,300,000 birds in the mid 1970s.

It, too, winters in Mexico, Central America, the West Indies and northern South America. Like the wigeon, the vast majority of the northern shoveler's vast breeding range does not even occur in the areas of concern. In fact these and other waterfowl have shown very high populations this last year, a fact contributed to the increase in wetlands in the prairies as a result of weather changes and subsequent rain levels.

Concern is also mentioned for "local nesting populations" of semipalmated sandpipers and red-necked phalaropes. No one denies that "local nesting populations" of the those birds would be affected, but should there be bias in their favor? The semipalmated sandpiper, possibly the most abundant of the shorebirds on migration through southern Ontario, where I live, nests from the west coast of Alaska, all the way east to northern Labrador, right across the top of the continent. By now you may not be too surprised to read that the ICBP says of this species:

Not locally threatened. Total population estimated at 3,200,000 - 3,900,000 birds (1993); up to 1,000,000 breeding birds in E. Canadian Arctic.

However, it also states:

Numbers migrating in E. Canada declined significantly from 1974 to 1991, possibly in part due to cold breeding seasons in 1970s; numbers staging in Delaware Bay on N[orthern] migration, have declined since 1986. Destruction and manipulation of coastal and inland wetlands, and perhaps pollution, are major threats to populations.

No mention of geese.

The red-necked phalarope nests across the top of both the western and the eastern hemispheres, ranging from Alaska east to Baffin Island, northern Labrador, Greenland and Iceland, and continuing on through northern Europe, across northern Asia to the Bering Sea. As with the other species, much of this vast range is outside the area of concern. According to the ICBP, the North American population, "exceeds 2,000,000 birds." However, it warns:

Numbers in Bay of Fundy have decreased dramatically during recent years, but cause unknown. Numbers may be decreasing at S[outhern part] of range.

Significantly, virtually this entire New World population of this fascinating and colorful little bird winters at sea off the west coast of South America, below the equator, in the food-rich waters nourished by the Humboldt Current as it flows up parallel to the coast of South America. It is a region that is teeming with marine life. However, it is this current that is suppressed by the often mentioned "El Nino" events, when warm waters replace the cold Humboldt Current and are also believed to create severe changes in climate around the globe. During El Nino events, the failure of food in the form of fish and other marine life results in mass die-offs of local seabird species. As El Nino years seem to be increasing in frequency, I think it is far more likely that they have influenced the declines in this species. Similarly, overfishing in the northwest Atlantic, infamous for causing the collapse of the Atlantic cod fishery, could also influence a cascade effect leading to a decline in the tiny organisms that are the main diet of this sea-going species.

Interestingly, the report indicates that the defoliation observed as a result of goose foraging may have led to an increase in local breeding opportunities for the semipalmated plover. This species has the widest breeding range in North America of the three species mentioned, nesting from coastal Alaska as far east as Newfoundland. However, while it is not globally threatened, its total population, according to the ICBP, is only about 50,000 birds. Thus ironically, of the species mentioned so far, the one that the report admits may actually benefit from snow geese population increase is also, by far, the least abundant. Go figure.

The Yellow Rail

And that brings us to the final bird species mentioned, a very little-known and seldom observed bird called the yellow rail. The yellow rail does nest in the salt marshes affected by the geese. However the majority of the rail's breeding grounds range extensively well to the south of that of the geese, from the Canadian prairies east to the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Of this species the ICBP says:

Not globally threatened. Nominate race is local breeder over wide areas of Canada and N[orthern] USA. Breeding range has decreased: formerly bred in N[orthern] California, and possibly also NE USA, S to c. 40 [degrees latitude] north; in 19th century described as resident in Florida and S[outhern] Louisiana.

Destruction of wetland habitat is cited as the primary factor in the decline of this species. Being a very small (about the size of a sparrow) and cryptically colored resident of dense, marshy areas dominated by sedges and grasses, it is simply not possible to give population size estimates. If the decline in white geese allowed such habitat to increase along the Hudson Bay and James Bay coastlines, then it is possible that the species moved into that region and would benefit locally from a significant decrease in geese, assuming that once the goose population peaks and crashes (as appears to be happening already in some of the areas of concern) the vegetation will not grow back. Speculations aside, there is no proof that such is the case. Meanwhile the real problem for this species lies far from the breeding grounds of the white geese.

Predictably, the report goes on to express concern for the geese themselves. One concern is that there has been a decrease in body size. This same concern is often voiced with regard to "overpopulations" of deer or moose, with subsequent calls for increased killing by the final solution school of wildlife management.

Selected Against

But the concern is subjective; a value judgment in which humans, not the processes of natural selection, determine what "should be" the size of the birds. Without now plunging into an explanation of how evolution works, let me try to put it simply. When food is scarce it may be that animals with lower food requirements (because they are smaller) survive more often on average than the bigger ones. In other words, the characteristic of smallness is "selected for" and that of bigness is "selected against." This has led to isolated populations in relatively food-poor regions becoming smaller. The most famous example in North America would be the Key deer, that tiny race of white-tailed deer (they stand about as tall as a sheep dog, about knee high to an adult human) that lives only in the Florida Keys. At one time the Keys were part of the mainland, but as rising levels of water isolated them the deer "trapped" on the islands had more limited food resources than would have been available on the mainland. Smallness was selected for because smaller animals required less nourishment. Bigness was selected against and in time there evolved the miniature white-tailed deer.

Nothing so dramatic is going to happen to the white geese (although one might speculate that the smaller size of the Ross's goose is a function of its breeding, on average, at higher latitudes where there is less nutriment available).

No one, not even the people calling for a massive culling of white geese, expects the population to increase forever. The report itself admits to what ecologists refer to as the "boom/bust" nature of wildlife populations in the far north. There are relatively few species in the far north (due to its low rainfall, much of the arctic is technically a desert), but those that do occur typically do so in large numbers. But these population increases are followed by declines. The lemmings are perhaps the best known example of this. One year there are huge numbers of lemmings, so many that they tumble into the sea in search of food as they scour the countryside. Predators, such as owls and foxes, have "boom" years of productivity thanks to the abundance of lemmings. But then comes the crash, followed by the crash of the predators.

When the lemming populations are low, snowy owls may show up in large numbers where I live, far to the south of their normal wintering range. Many are thin; many never make it back home.

Disease is another possibility. Waterfowl populations often experience local crashes due to avian botulism (also known as western duck sickness) and other diseases and parasites. There is no question that disease or parasite infestation is more likely when the birds are concentrated in large numbers. But both disease and starvation have been with us from the dawn of time. It's part of the natural cycle of dynamic interactions between organisms and their environments. I've never objected to the concept of providing humane euthanasia to an animal who is suffering terribly and cannot recover, but I do object to killing healthy animals who might otherwise suffer, something I call "preemptive euthanasia." That is what is being proposed.

Just How Abundant

Finally, I realize that I have responded to this report and to the concerns that have been widely publicized with skepticism and sarcasm. But enough people are involved that it's possible that there is sincerity present in at least some of the contributors. I think the problem lies in our general inability to truly understand just how abundant many species once were. No one alive can recall the great schools of fish and herds of animals who once roamed North America. We tend to measure things by what we were familiar with when we were younger and by what the preceding generation told us.

So even though there is the written record, generally ignored by the report, it's easy for some folks to dismiss out of hand the accounts of astounding abundance of many wildlife species in North America when first Europeans arrived. Some species with highly restricted habitat preferences were obviously less abundant. John James Audubon reported seeing only one chestnut-sided warbler in his entire lifetime of roaming the 18th century American wilderness; it is now one of the most common of the warblers in eastern North America. But it prefers second growth conditions for nesting, and so it is one of many species that have, like the coyote moving east or the muskrats and red foxes found in coastal California and the interior valley, increased in numbers as a direct result of European colonization and subsequent large scale habitat alteration.

But many other species, abundant by nature, were greatly reduced long before we were born. We can't imagine what it must have been like for the early market gunners who could drop dozens of Eskimo curlews with a single shot ... not now that the Eskimo curlew, once our most abundant shorebird, is virtually, if not actually, extinct. The passenger pigeon, whose billions once darkened the sky and who outnumbered all other birds combined, is gone forever. What of the thundering herds of bison who seemed so limitless in numbers, but were killed off by gunfire in a few short decades? In my lifetime there was never the abundance of northern cod the first Europeans encountered, when the fish could be hauled up in a bucket dropped overboard from a ship plowing through their teeming masses. Nevertheless the cod has gone from the main economic engine of the province of Newfoundland to a species so rare that a moratorium has been placed on cod fishing. It was unthinkable, but it happened.

Similarly, in these days when hunters and bag limits are tightly controlled, it is difficult for us to imagine the magnitude of the killing that once occurred, and just how devastating it was to the survival of species that must have seemed inexhaustible. Some species, once reduced in number, may never recover in spite of all protection. There is a threshold below which recovery is difficult or impossible, although it may not be known until it is too late for recovery. Or some species, like the famous whooping crane, may recover only if huge resources are put into the effort, with direct and continuous intervention. The species is still endangered, but it was once almost extinct. We still can't say, for sure, that it will survive. Others, like the bison, have lost the vastness of the prairie expanses they would need to recover to anything like a significant percentage of their former glory. And even the remnant herds that survive are source of irritation for the many proponents of the final solution school of wildlife management.

In the fullness of times that included advancing and retreating ice ages and when huge, inland seas came and went, there were snow geese, and their populations must have varied enormously in response to such changes, just as, when they were abundant, they would have acted upon the environment. In the tiny slice of time we happen to inhabit we've been privileged to see nothing more sinister or threatening that a rebound of once abundant species to something closer to the numbers they once experienced. Of course there will be disease and starvation, there always is, with all species, including our own. But preemptive euthanasia is not the solution to a problem that does not exist. Many, perhaps most, of us will suffer before we die, but that does not mean that we welcome death while we are still healthy.

The snow geese should be left to fly the great migration corridors that transverse our continent, to live and die and continue in the unfolding, ever-changing nature of their own destiny. They do not need our shotguns to intervene. They are beautiful and exciting to behold, and they have their own purposes to serve. The idea of a cull is nothing more than a reflection of values and biases most of us don't share.

API will keep you informed and let you know if protest is needed to help save the white geese of North America from a bias that sees the blast of a shotgun as the best solution to a problem that is the invention of the final solution school of wildlife management.