The Snow Goose Situation

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Bill Stransky could not believe his eyes. The dedicated waterfowler and founder of Wharton-based conservation group Texas R.I.C.E. was stunned at the number of snow geese he saw before him.

“I had heard about all of the birds that had started to stack up in Arkansas and made a trip up there a few years ago to see what all of the buzz was about,” Stransky said.

“It was stunning.”

  What he saw was snow geese as far as the eye could see on far more rice and other agriculture than Texas.

  “All of the wetlands enhancement we could do in a decade would not equal what you can see down one farm road up there in Arkansas. Those birds have plenty to eat and little pressure,” Stransky said.

Arkansas hunters prefer green over white focusing their efforts on the state’s bountiful mallards and other puddle ducks and do very little snow goose hunting.

Contrast the above scenario to the rice country east of Houston where there has been a rice loss of 83 percent over the last 30 years and an increase in hunters that put extreme pressure on geese.

“There’s scarcely a huntable field anywhere east or west of Houston that does not have hunters on it throughout the season. And if you look at the number of birds you see driving the Interstate 10 corridor, it is obvious that pressure is having an effect on the birds,” said David Schmidt of Baytown.

Schmidt hunts near Anahuac and said he believes the 2009 season was a breaking point for waterfowl on the local prairies.

“You just do not have any large concentrations of geese here, anything remotely comparable to even just a few years ago. And then the ducks were not on the prairie, except for a few large reservoirs. The marsh had ducks and even some geese, but the prairie was pitiful. Even though there has been some rice in areas that haven’t had it in many years, it was scattered all over the place and not in any large contiguous tracts,” Schmidt said.

Once relatively scarce, they now number nearly millions and are causing major damage to their nesting habitat in the arctic.

Special conservation order seasons were put in place to help trim the population. Electronic calls, unplugged shotguns and a limitless bag were something waterfowl managers hoped would help the population but some believe in Texas it actually helped send the birds elsewhere.

Outfitter William L. Sherrill is not a fan of the special conservation order and puts a strict limit on the number of geese his parties can take.

If there has ever been a waterfowl guru out there, Sherrill is it. I have had the pleasure of hunting with him several times and am blown away by the habitat management on the property he hunts and his focus on small details.

“There is such a thing as putting too much pressure on the birds and with geese it seems like that’s exactly what we’re doing.”

In 1999 when the special conservation order was put in place Texas hunters took around 370,000 light geese. The next year the harvest only slipped a bit but by the 2007-2008 season it had dropped to around 250,000 birds. The difference is in the number of geese wintering in Texas, which a big topic of conversation was at last March’s Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD) Commission hearing.

Speaking to Commissioners, former TPWD Migratory Bird Program leader Dave Morrison used Kansas as an example of how snow geese are changing their patterns.

“They had 350- to 400,000 birds in their state, they killed 15,000. They’re not putting pressure on their birds like we do. We have a mid-winter estimate of around 350-, 400,000 year before last, and we shot about 250,000 birds.”

Think about that for a second. Texas hunters shot more than half of the light geese that wintered in Texas. And according to Morrisson’s testimony there is a direct correlation between the amount of pressure here and wintering bird numbers, and the lack of pressure elsewhere.

“Now that’s a direct relationship — I understand, that’s just the indices compared to population estimates. But the decline, you can see the decline, what’s going on. Now, understand that the intent was to cause birds to go down. That was the intent of the expanded and liberal seasons. But the continental population has not gone down. It’s simply a Texas problem.”

When asked by Commission Friedkin if biologists were sure the problem was hunting related and Morrison replied as follows.

“The reasons for the decline are really very — I mean you look at what’s going on in Arkansas and Kansas, Kansas had 400,000 birds this year. Typically Texas would winter anywhere from 80 to 90 percent of the white geese in the Central Flyway; now we’re down to about 41 percent.”

“But continental populations have not declined, it’s just this Texas portion that for some reason birds aren’t getting to Texas and we’re trying to figure out a way, how do we at least keep those birds here in Texas longer and provide maximum opportunity. We’re not suggesting that we’re trying to back away from harvest, simply because they’re continues to be a continental population, we’re just looking at how do we restructure this thing to provide the best possible opportunities.”

We have written about this situation in two different stories over the last four years and find it intriguing.  Goose hunting has been and in some ways continues to be an important part of Texas hunting culture, particularly on the coast but things are not changing any more. They have changed.

And with the highly dynamic nature of waterfowl, things could look vastly different for the better or worse five years from now.

Story by Chester Moore

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