FOR NEARLY 20 YEARS, a special conservation order has been in place to allow hunters to use electronic calls to lure in snow geese.
The conservation order was intended to help reduce snow goose populations. The numbers had grown so large they threatened to literally eat themselves out of house and home on their northern nesting grounds. So, how good has the order done in that regard?
According to a paper titled “Harvest, Survival, and Abundance of Midcontinent Lesser Snow Geese Relative to Population Reduction Efforts,” the answer might just shock many hunters.
The researchers in this paper represented everyone from the Canadian Wildlife Service to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. They wrote, “Overall, all three populations of light geese now exceed numbers present when the conservation order was initiated. We are confident that the abundance and population growth rate of midcontinent snow geese (as well as by Ross’s and greater snow geese) currently exceeds the ability of existing numbers of hunters to exert harvest pressure that is necessary to impose sufficient additive mortality and thus effectively influence population growth.
“We suggest that abundance of midcontinent snow geese was seriously underestimated in the past and that this underestimate may have contributed to overconfidence with which suggested harvest levels could achieve a goal of reduced survival and population reduction.
“We are confident that the abundance and population growth rate of midcontinent snow geese (as well as by Ross’s and greater snow geese) currently exceeds the ability of existing numbers of hunters to exert harvest pressure that is necessary to impose sufficient additive mortality and thus effectively influence population growth.”
More geese should equal more goose hunting opportunities, right?
Wrong! (especially in Texas).
We first addressed the decline eight years ago where we detailed a unique testimony given by then TPWD Migratory Bird Program Leader Dave Morrison before the TPWD Commission where he detailed how Texas’s population is decreasing while other states like Kansas are on the rise.
“…They (Kansas) had 350- to 400,000 birds in their state. They killed 15,000. They are not putting pressure on their birds as we do. We have a mid-winter estimate of around 350- to 400,000 year before last, and we shot about 250,000 birds.”
Texas hunters shot more than half of the light geese that wintered in Texas while Kansas only took a tiny portion.
“Now that’s a direct relationship. I understand that it’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 bird numbers 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.”
The wisest waterfowler I have ever hunted with is William L. (Bill) Sherrill who operates in Wharton County. I’m not one to throw the word “guru” around, but if there’s a waterfowl guru in Texas, he is it.
For years, he has put a strict limit on the number of geese taken and has been vocal over his disapproval of the conservation order since its inception.
“There is such thing as putting too much pressure on the birds,” he said, “and with geese, it seems like that’s exactly what we’re doing.”
“There’s scarcely a huntable field anywhere east or west of Houston that does not have hunters on it throughout the season. If you look at the number of birds you see while driving the Interstate 10 corridor it’s obvious that pressure is having an effect on the birds,” said David Schmidt of Baytown.
Schmidt hunted near Anahuac and said he believes a decade ago, a breaking point occurred 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.” Schmidt said. “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.”
So, what about those stories of hunters taking hundreds of snows on one hunt?
They happen every once in a while, but with far less frequency than in the past simply because there are not as many geese and the ones we are hunting have been shot at from November through March throughout the Central Flyway.
In short, snow geese are adapting to hunting pressure. It seems in large part, Texas is becoming a much less important part of their wintering plans. In 2017 the midwinter survey counted fewer than 200,000 snow geese, putting it less than half of the long-term average.
That’s not to say no huntable populations exist because some do. Those populations, however, are far lower than the “glory days” of the past and probably will not improve with time.
Snow geese are smart.
I have written they are altogether the wariest bird hunters pursue. Wild turkeys are a close second. However, in my opinion, a wary old goose that has been shot at from Canada to South Texas is the smartest thing with feathers.
While hunting with Bill Sherrill in 2007, I watched a young snow start coming indirectly toward our spread. The hundreds of decoys and the expert calling of Sherrill was irresistible.
That is until two older geese from the colossal flock flying well above shooting range started cackling and flew down to guide the young bird back up.
They knew danger lurked below and they saved one of their kind with their wild wisdom.
Snow geese are rarer in Texas than they have been in decades, so maybe we should appreciate the hunting opportunities we get.
Snow geese deserve our respect.
Ducks Unlimited Chief Biologist Dale Humburg gives us the back story on the snow goose.
—story by CHESTER MOORE