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Most Legal Spring Snow Geese Fly By Montana


Thu Feb 18 00:00:00 MST 1999

The eastern Dakotas will be the location of the nearest north-bound geese available to waterfowl hunters hoping to take advantage of an unusual spring season, says a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks waterfowl biologist.

Last week, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service sanctioned a special spring conservation order as part of an effort to save fragile arctic habitats from damage caused by exploding "light" goose populations. The first of its kind spring season is designed to use waterfowl hunters to help reduce the population of mid-continent light geese--snow and Ross' geese--in the Mississippi and Central Flyways.

"If we opened this spring season in Montana, we'd be charging hunters to sit in their goose blinds to play cards," said Jim Hansen, FWP's Billings-based Central Flyway waterfowl biologist. "There are so few light geese in this part of the state's Central Flyway that it just doesn't make sense to offer a hunting opportunity when one doesn't exist. The major concentrations of those geese are hundreds of miles east of Montana."

The targeted light geese migrating primarily through the Central and Mississippi flyways nest in Canada's central and eastern arctic regions. It is within these areas, especially along the west and south coasts of Hudson Bay, where habitat damage is most severe.

Because the Pacific Flyway is not included in this special, federally sanctioned conservation order, there cannot be a spring hunt at Freezout Lake near Fairfield, which hosts the state's largest concentration of light geese during spring and fall migrations. Lesser snow geese that use Freezout Lake, and the Pacific Flyway, during their spring and fall migrations are birds that nest in the western Canadian arctic, along the north slope of Alaska, and on Wrangel Island off the coast of Russia. "For the most part, their population status is relatively stable," Hansen said.

North Dakota and South Dakota, among other states, are planning to take advantage of the spring hunting season.

In South Dakota, the season dates are set for Feb. 18-April 30. There will be a new, 5-day nonresident permit for $45, available from South Dakota license vendors and county treasurers. The best hunting will be in the eastern part of the state, with light geese expected in good numbers by mid-March, perhaps earlier if mild weather continues. South Dakota proposes to have a bag limit of 20 per day, with no possession limit. For information call, South Dakota Game & Fish at: 605-773-3485.

Details on North Dakota's spring season are not final. Nonresident licenses sell for $95. For information call 701-328-6301.

The USFWS's action will begin to address an ecological crisis caused by an explosion in mid-continent populations of lesser snow geese and Ross' geese. The light goose population has jumped from an estimated 800,000 in the 1960s to 5 million today, far more geese than the fragile arctic tundra breeding grounds can support. Agricultural development and the establishment of waterfowl refuges along migration routes and wintering areas--which have increased food and security for the birds--have contributed to the population explosion.

Snow and Ross' geese feed by pulling up and eating the roots of plants. Overgrazing by the geese around a nesting colony results in the dissipation of exposed soil and an increase in salinity levels. The damage is often irreversible. In addition to depleting their own food sources, Hansen said the geese have destroyed other habitats, which has contributed to the decline of more than 30 migratory bird species, including several species of shorebirds.