October 30, 2022
Goose hunting. It captivates the hearts, minds, and souls of many waterfowlers across the nation every year, not to mention our bank accounts. And for good reason, as anyone who has ever smiled from a goose blind can readily understand.
From big Canada honkers gliding over an early season September cornfield spread to the raucous cries of tens of thousands of snows and blues over a Saskatchewan pea field a few weeks later to a pair of white-fronted geese cupped and committed over a rag decoy spread sitting in a rice field on a foggy winter day along the Texas Gulf Coast, there’s no shortage of geese or goose hunting opportunities right now. While there are exceptions to this idea, these are the good old days of goose hunting.
And now, in some places, goose bag limits are approaching those for ducks. With that good news in mind, here’s our “State of the Goose” report for 2022.
Put simply, with the exception of Canada geese in the beleaguered Atlantic Flyway, the state of the Canada goose is good right now according to Ducks Unlimited chief scientist, Dr. Steve Adair, who keeps a close watch on the pulse of goose trends from his Bismarck, N.D. office. “Absolutely, I’d say that overall, it’s very strong,” said Adair, noting that Canada geese are more drought resistant, nesting around more permanent water bodies like riverbanks, lake shorelines, golf course ponds, etc. “Canada geese are doing well across most of North America. They are not as susceptible as ducks are to predation, they will defend their nests and broods, and can fight off a lot of small predators.”
The biologist does note that as resident flocks continue to build to historic levels in many places and the birds in the Mississippi and Central Flyways continue to thrive, there are a couple of areas of concern, including the Atlantic Population, where Delmarva Peninsula hunting trends have turned downward after captivating outdoor scribes like the late Gene Hill and spurring the creation of the World Goose Calling Championship contest in Easton, Md. back in 1976.
Out west, Adair says that the Dusky Canada Goose population, already small to begin with, merits it’s own special attention so that biologists can ensure that overharvesting doesn’t become an issue there. Adair also points out that spring weather this year could bring about a sizable dent in juvenile Canada goose numbers migrating southward through the mid-continent region, however.
“The thing that gets Canada geese is weather,” he said. “We actually had a DU meeting in Manitoba (in late May), and some of our staff drove up from Bismarck where we had a historic blizzard in April. Since Canadas often get started in March, I would imagine that a lot of Canada geese lost their first nests this year due to 2 to 4-feet of snow. And true to form, we didn’t see as many broods since spring snowstorms often destroy those early nests.”
The biologist notes that Canadas will re-nest and are generally successful at doing that, but that gosling survival can go down the later the nests hatch out their young: “They can run out of time to get on the wing in that scenario, and plus, predators can be more active later on and make more of an impact on goslings.”
Another concern are conditions much further north in the Arctic where some Canadas nest. With a late fall and a late spring, the region is behind schedule. “If their nesting gets much later than mid-June, production declines due to the shorter window available to the birds in terms of nesting, hatching, and raising their young. It is likely to be a short term (downward) blip in the Arctic birds this year, but they should bounce back in future years.”
One reason Adair is optimistic about Canada geese right now is because of their adaptability. “Part of our theory about geese overall, is how adaptive they are to feeding on waste grain, things like corn, rice, soybeans, etc.,” he said. “Since their primary food sources in winter have increased greatly over the years, and considering that as a general rule, geese carry nutrients to the breeding grounds in the spring that they’ve been gathering on the wintering ground agriculture lands, their spring reserves are strong. In short, the landscape has been kind to them (Canada geese) over the years, in terms of breeding.”
Harvest data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for 2020 (the most recent year available as of press time) confirms that things remain generally stable and good for Canadas. During that year, the preliminary entire season harvest figure was 2,135,655, including 861,730 birds harvested in the Mississippi Flyway; 610,117 in the Central Flyway; 391,061 in the Atlantic Flyway; and 272,738 in the Pacific Flyway.
What’s more, the 2,258,112 average harvest from 2016-20 is stable and consistent too, not too far below the long-term harvest figure average (1999-2020) number of 2,462,099 Canada geese. With a strong population base, even the possibility of less juvenile birds flying south this fall can’t blunt Adair’s belief that the state of the union for Canada geese is strong and that’s good news for hunters.
As anyone who has watched waterfowling shows on Outdoor Channel and Sportsman’s Channel can attest, it’s a good time right now to hunt white-fronted geese, or specklebellies as many hunters call them.
Once upon a time, the Texas Gulf Coast was a great spot to chase these bar-bellied geese as they flocked to the Eagle Lake and El Campo regions southwest of Houston. With changes in rice production, however, the birds have shifted their migration patterns even as numbers have remained solid.
And true to form, out of the 271,740 white-fronted geese harvested across the U.S. in 2020, not quite half of those came in the Mississippi Flyway where hunters took some 119,507 bar bellies. In the Central Flyway, where Texas lies at the bottom end, hunters only took 43,015 that same year.
What about specklebellies this year? Adair says while juvenile numbers may be affected, everything else looks all systems go right now for white-fronted geese. “They’ve been good, they continue to look good,” he said. “Now, they will be impacted by the late spring this year–and that means that we could see fewer young birds this fall–but white-fronted geese seem to be pretty stable, pretty resilient right now.”
When it comes to light geese—lesser and greater snow geese, their blue-phased family members, and Ross’ geese—getting a pulse on these gregarious birds is more difficult and complex. Their Arctic nesting grounds are remote and fragile, while the short breeding window can be impacted by late springs like the one experienced this year.
Add in the fact that light geese stage and migrate in some absolutely massive flocks in the fall and spring, and are generally tough to hunt and decoy efficiently without crazy big decoy spreads, and you get an idea of why the state of the goose union here is a bit more difficult to pinpoint.
It’s important here to remember that the springtime Light Goose Conservation Order (LGCO) season, though controversial at the time, was federally mandated in 1999 and has been ongoing since then. Also known as the Arctic Tundra Habitat Emergency Conservation Act, the unprecedented spring season gives hunters the ability to use unplugged shotguns, electronic callers, extended shooting hours, and no bag limits to try and help control light goose numbers before they eat themselves out of house and home.
Adair says that while things are still good for light geese now, there are potential storm clouds on the horizon and that hunters should realize that peak abundances don’t last forever and we should all cherish what we’ve got. “Things are still pretty good but we are starting to see some declines,” he said. “The last time we had reliable population numbers in 2019, both Ross’ and mid-continent snow geese were showing declines over the past five years.”
That could mean that some of the worries that Dr. Bruce Batt, one of Adair’s predecessors, had back in the late 1990s are starting to become reality. “We predicted a couple of decades ago that tougher times could be forthcoming,” said Adair. “It’s taken longer than some of us have expected, but it looks like it’s starting to take place. The question for us now is can they go elsewhere and thrive like white-fronted geese have. That’s kind of an unknown right now, but my gut feeling is that they’ve probably reached their peak. We’re starting to see a decline, but can’t say yet if it’s going to be a really steep line or a gradual line going downward that hopefully will eventually stabilize.”
Snow goose harvest figures support that, since the average harvest from 2016-20 did bump up to 367,944 snow geese, up from the 329,298 figure seen from 2011-15 and near the long-term harvest average tally of 372,724 snow geese (Ross’ geese harvest numbers are less and not included in those figures). But those numbers are far below the 614,949 snow geese hunters took on average between 1999 and 2000 and the 419,508 birds taken on average from 2001-05.
What about this year? Like the other goose species mentioned above, Adair smiles and gives a thumbs up. “I’d say that overall, the state of the snow goose population is healthy, but they are finding their new equilibrium right now, and we’re not exactly sure where that is,” he said. “I wouldn’t consider them stable though, but more in a state of flux. And as for hunters this fall, there will still be plenty of birds, but probably not as many juveniles that easily decoy.”
Peering Into the Future
If right now is good, what does the future look like over the next five to 10-years? That’s always hard to say when asking a biologist to look into a crystal ball. But according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service goose specialist Josh Dooley, things look reasonably good down the road.
“Numbers are still pretty high, especially in the mid-continent,” said Dooley. How high are those numbers? Adair says that in the latest data he had available, Canada geese are an estimated 8,134,000 birds (the sum of 15 subpopulations); white-fronted geese (in the Pacific Northwest and Mid-Continent region) had 1,253,000; and light geese (the sum of lesser and greater snows along with Ross’ geese) had 14,916,000.
Still, Dooley cautions that changes could be slowly building in the wind. “While those numbers remain high, there’s been some evidence of potential decline over the last decade,” he said. “But I see things being pretty similar for now in the years ahead, and don’t anticipate any drastic changes (anytime soon). Regulations are controlled by flyway management plans, and where those thresholds that trigger changes for geese are, the populations aren’t really all that close right now. So, I don’t really expect to see a lot of reg changes anytime soon.”