In mid-August, hunters in North Dakota will take the field in pursuit of Canada geese.
This year, they'll be able to get after the birds in an especially big way. For the first time ever, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department is recommending a daily bag limit of 15 and a possession limit of 30 for the early season that begins Aug. 15 and continues through mid-September.
That's up from limits of eight and 16 during last year's early season.
Any way you slice it, that's a pile of goose jerky. The reason for the liberal bag is simple, wildlife managers say:
There's too many Canada geese out there — way too many, in some cases.
"Canada geese are definitely emerging as one of the Central Flyway's top priorities up and down the flyway," said Mike Szymanski, a migratory game bird biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck. "It's not just the Dakotas having issues; they're superabundant, and prairie Canada has a ton of Canada geese, too."
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the federal agency charged with regulating migratory bird seasons, North Dakota's estimated Canada goose population this spring stood at a whopping 415,000 birds. That's more than twice the 162,000 Canada geese tallied in the spring of 2000 and five times higher than the state Game and Fish Department's management goal of 80,000 birds.
"I guess in biology terms, you could call it geometric growth," Szymanski said. "If you look at the trend over time, they've increased substantially."
Victim of success
In many ways, the explosion of Canada geese is a story of success taken to extremes. The birds targeted during the early season are resident giant Canada geese, a subspecies thought to be nearly extinct until the 1960s, when a remnant population was discovered near Rochester, Minn.
"They thought the Great Plains birds were pretty much gone," Szymanski said. "They found them around Rochester and began breeding programs back in the '60s, trying to bring them back. It was pretty slow going.
"A lot of people were saying it would never succeed, achieving a population of 10,000 pairs in North Dakota."
Then came the early '90s, and a series of wet years in North Dakota and neighboring states. Giant Canada geese responded, and with less stringent habitat requirements than ducks, the birds began to thrive in places they weren't necessarily wanted, such as farmers' fields or, in more urban areas, soccer fields and golf courses.
"Pretty much anywhere where they've got short, green vegetation to eat and water to provide an escape route, they're going to be there, and they're going to do well," Szymanski said.
For farmers, that means problems with the geese raiding small grain and soybean crops. In more urban settings, the geese are despised for the copious quantities of waste they produce.
"I don't think anyone really envisioned the problems they'd cause," said Steve Cordts, waterfowl staff specialist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Bemidji.
Hunting remains the most socially acceptable option for controlling the birds. According to Szymanski, wildlife managers in North Dakota and South Dakota were able to get federal approval for the 15-bird early bag after banner reproduction this spring.
Approval wasn't needed for the August portion of the hunt, which is considered a "management take" outside of traditional early season guidelines, but the maximum limit for the September part of the early season previously was eight.
"They're a very successful bird, and that's part of the reason we acted pretty swiftly this year on bag limits," Szymanski said. "Both Dakotas were seeing lots of Canada geese nesting, lots of Canada geese hatching.
"We wanted to try to use harvest to a more full extent to knock the birds back."
North Dakota offered its first statewide September Canada goose season in 2000, expanding the hunt to mid-August in 2008. Last year, Szymanski said, Game and Fish raised the early season bag from five to eight, and hunters killed more than 55,000 Canada geese during the early season, based on Game and Fish estimates. North Dakota hunters killed another 90,000 Canada geese during the regular season, according to federal harvest statistics.
The early season has attracted about 5,000 hunters each of the past five years, Szymanski said.
Minnesota, by comparison, routinely leads the country in Canada goose harvest, killing nearly 250,000 birds annually, including 100,000 during the early season. Cordts, the DNR waterfowl biologist in Bemidji, said hunting helped keep numbers relatively stable for the past decade until this spring, when Minnesota reported its highest Canada goose population on record with an estimated 434,000 geese.
As in North Dakota, the increase resulted from an early spring and favorable breeding conditions.
"We still have at least the potential to harvest a lot of geese — we shoot almost a quarter-million a year" in Minnesota, Cordts said. "But both of the Dakotas don't have the hunter numbers to shoot that many geese."
Cordts said the DNR last year set Minnesota's regular goose season at 107 days, the maximum allowed in the Mississippi Flyway under federal guidelines; this year's early season is set for Sept. 1-22.
If Canada goose populations continue to rise, he said the DNR might have to take more extreme measures such as the August hunt North Dakota offers or an increase in the five-bird September and three-bird regular season limits.
Even so, it would take some doing to bring numbers in line with the DNR's management goal of about 250,000 Canada geese, Cordts said.
"If you really want to manage for declining goose populations, I'm not sure we can do it with hunting seasons," he said.
And from a hunter's perspective, that might not be a bad thing.
"I think hunters, if we actually reduced our population to 250,000 or even lower, they'd say, 'wait a minute,'" Cordts said. "It's been positive and provided lots or recreational opportunity and harvest. To some people now, they're extremely important, and if it doesn't affect them, they want to see more geese.
"If they're a farmer in west-central Minnesota they want fewer geese, so that goal is - I don't want to say arbitrary - but it's a hard number to come up with."
Set the limits too high, and there's also the risk of reducing giant Canada geese to vermin status, something that already has happened with snow geese, another overly abundant species known by some as "sky carp."
"There's always that risk," Szymanski of Game and Fish said. "I think it ends up happening almost no matter what.
"It all depends on how people start talking about them. It's a really hard thing to control."
And as wildlife managers know all too well, the same can be said for the geese.