As fall eases into winter, the slow sweep of geese migrating across the sky becomes a familiar sight. For farmers in Arkansas, the sound of overhead honking is less than welcome.
Since the 1990’s, populations of Lesser Snow geese, Greater Snow Geese, Blue Geese and other varieties of light geese have been arriving in Arkansas in droves, causing a problem for soybean, corn and rice farmers as the birds gobble up their crops. Farmers watch as their fields are overtaken with geese that devour their crops and leave unwelcome droppings in the fields.
“Much of the growth in light goose populations over the past several dates is assumed to be primarily a result of a phenomenon termed “agricultural subsidy”. Essentially, land use changes across much of the midcontinent region have resulted in a greater amount of food resources available to light geese outside their breeding range, particularly during spring migration, leading to increased survival and growing populations” said Luke Naylor, the Waterfowl Program Coordinator with Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.
This isn’t just an isolated issue, the impact of light geese extends far up north to Arctic and sub-Arctic habitats that are experience unparalleled degradation due to an overpopulation of geese. As the geese migrate through the southern flyway, a migration byway directly over Arkansas, these geese see Arkansas crops as an all-you-can-eat buffet on their way to Canada, a buffet that is helping bolster the population that is leading to destruction of habitats in the Northern U.S. And Canada. What used to be grueling trip across the U.S. Is now partially supported by Arkansas agriculture as geese that would previously have been claimed by the elements have been using Arkansas as a stopover on their journey. A warming climate has also provided milder winters and warmer summers that enable the geese to reproduce in astounding numbers.
According to Ducks Unlimited, the overabundant mid-continent snow geese population increases at a rate of about five percent each year, with the population in the 1960’s totaling about 800,000 that today reaches upwards of 13 million. As this enormous influx of geese arrives in their northern nesting grounds, they devour precious plant rescources previously available to other shorebird species. Areas such as James Bay and Hudson Bay have seen a dramatic reduction in biodiversity as competitors like the sandpiper, a small shorebird, are left out in the cold with no food. While the devastating impacts that these geese have on Arkansas farms is clear, the solution is murkier, and will most likely require a nuanced and multi-pronged approach to curb these voracious birds.
Many organizations such as Ducks Unlimited and AGFC advocate for conservation through hunting, eliminating bag limits and extending the hunting day for geese from 30 minutes before sunrise to 30 minutes after sunset.
“We offer maximum hunting opportunity for light geese” said Naylor, “Arkansas is now a primary wintering state for light geese, so our efforts to encourage legal harvest of these geese is important to broader the efforts”.
The Light Goose Conservation Order (LGCO) was passed by congress in 1999, and has the goal preserve Arctic and sub-Arctic habitats by decreasing the light goose population by 50% in ten years, a goal that has yet to be achieved. Ducks Unlimited is quick to point out the opportunity that this grants hunters in search of fowl post-duck season. Snow geese are typically hunted from September though May, and offer hunters an interesting challenge to pursue such an abundant and incredibly well adapted species. Their are no bag or daily possession limits, as well as easing of other restrictions such as the removal of plugs from shotguns and electric callers. Arkansas hunters can enjoy an extended fowl season and feel good about contributing to ecosystem conservation.
Other agencies, such as the Humane Society are against the systematic rounding up and hunting of geese. They argue that hunting is not the most effective way to target specific species, and often just frees up more land for other geese to move in, creating a temporary but ineffective fix. GeesePeace, another agency focused on ethical treatment of fowl, advocates for the specific targeting of light goose eggs which can be oiled to prevent hatching. GeesePeace is opposed to many hunting measures and suggests that people use green lasers to lure geese away from fields instead of hunting them.
Though there are differing viewpoints on how best to effectively manage the influx of geese, the importance of addressing the issue is clear, and Arkansans are doing their part to contribute to the conservation effort.