What’s good for the goose? Controversy clouds spring goose hunt

Although Inuit groups either support the idea, or have taken no position on the issue, animals rights groups and the Assembly of First Nations have joined forces to oppose a massive increase in hunting for snow geese.


Nunatsiaq News

IQALUIT — A stretch of tundra on either side of the McConnell River near Arviat illustrates why a planned special spring hunt for millions of snow geese across North America has won Mark Kalluak’s support.

“It seems there’s getting to be more and more of them, and they’re using up a lot of land, eating up all the vegetation,” says Kalluak, president of Arviat’s hunters and trappers organization.

The sheer number of eggs laid each spring in this prime nesting area on the southwest coast of Hudson Bay can literally overwhelm the community, since goslings get the run of the village.

“They can’t fly yet and they’re just walking around all over the place, in between buildings, right in the community,” Kalluak said. “Everywhere you go you can see them.”

During winter, snow goose flocks head for marshes along the Louisiana and Texas coasts, but with their numbers climbing and their habitat shrinking, the birds have spread inland in recent years, to graze in fields of rice and corn.

Which is why Canadian and U.S. wildlife authorities hope their joint proposal to lift a 93-year-old international ban on spring goose hunting this spring will relieve pressure on sensitive Arctic habitat and eliminate what has become a growing nuisance for urban dwellers and southern farmers alike.

“There are numerous scientific articles which show now that geese are degrading the habitats in the area along the Hudson Bay coast, from James Bay all the way up to the southern territories,” said Dave Duncan, a spokesman with the Canadian Wildlife Service, the federal government agency responsible for migratory birds.

AFN allies with animal rights groups

But critics of the proposal say the biology is questionable, and at least two aboriginal groups, the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and Dene Nation, have made unlikely allies with southern animal-rights organizations to stop the hunt in court.

Last week the U.S.-based Humane Society began legal proceedings to halt changes to hunting regulations designed to boost American sport hunters’ annual take of lesser snow geese and a related species called the Ross’s geese. The Toronto-based Animal Alliance of Canada filed its own case against the hunt in Federal Court last Thursday, along with a group called the Canadian Environmental Defence Fund.

“What we’re talking about is a kill that will be utterly wasteful and I don’t believe, from talking with aboriginal communities all across the North, that aboriginal people would support that kind of sport hunting,” Liz White, a director with the Animal Alliance said.

Because the changes being contemplated would only affect Canadian hunters in northern Manitoba and Quebec, the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board (NWMB) has so far refrained from taking a position either in favour of or against the spring goose hunt.

“The number of people hunting here is insignificant and the number of birds we take here is insignificant compared with the American hunt,” NWMB assistant director Jim Noble said.

At question is the way in which scientists in Canada and the United States have interpreted three decades of healthy reproductive gains for the lesser snow goose, the Ross’s goose and a third species native to northern Quebec known as the greater snow goose.

Scientists agree the number of snow geese along the Hudson Bay coast has tripled since the mid-1970s, but there is strong disagreement as how to manage the population growth, and whether in fact intervention is desirable at all.

The central Arctic is both a nesting area and a stopover for migrating geese on their way to breeding grounds further north, on Baffin Island’s Great Plain of Koudjuak, Southampton Island and in the Kitikmeot region around Queen Maud Gulf.

In some areas of the central Arctic and sub-Arctic, notably the McConnell River and La Perouse Bay south of Churchill, birds have “basically eaten themselves out of house and home and damaged the habitat where it can no longer support them,” says Duncan.

Opponents of the extraordinary hunt say this perfectly natural, part of the birds’ normal population cycle.

“When that plant community disappears, the goose population will decline in that area, and in fact it appears to be showing aspects of that right now,” White says.

The Canadian Wildlife Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have sought to alter a 1916 treaty between Canada and the U.S. that outlaws snow goose hunting between March 10 and September 1.

Each year, North American sport hunters, three-quarters of whom are American, typically kill about 750,000 of the birds.

“We’ve worked very close with the United States on this and there’s consensus among all scientists that we need to try to harvest two to three times as many,” Duncan said. The hope is to increase the annual harvest to between 1.5 and 2 million birds.

“We’re trying to do what we can in Canada and encourage some aboriginal groups to harvest more geese as well,” Duncan said.

Twenty-four U.S. states have already been given the green light to extend their legal goose-hunting season, and the Canadian spring hunt could begin as early as April 15.

Opponents of changes to regulations argue that the science supporting the conservation hunt is shaky, resting on unproven assumptions about the “natural” or ideal snow-goose population.

“It will have a significant, significant impact on northern communities and availability of snow geese, for which we know northern communities are heavily dependent,” warns Liz White of the Animal Alliance.

All told, the Canadian Wildlife Service estimates the breeding population of lesser snow geese and the Ross’s geese to be on the order of 5 million birds — and that’s just those birds who are three years old and older.

“We guess that in the fall time there’s 10 to 12 million snow geese coming south from the Arctic to Canada and the U.S.,” Duncan said.

But scientists have studied bird colonies in the Arctic for less than three decades and there is no sure way of knowing what their numbers were before routine population surveys began, let alone what their “natural” population should be.

“These birds have survived many thousands of years in exactly the same type of environment they are impacting on now, and they have survived quite nicely, thank you very much,” White says.

Duncan counters that the range of the snow geese is expanding, and that this is at least a “suggestion” that the population has risen since the turn of the century.

“We know that when people first looked at snow geese in the early 1900s, they were basically all nesting in the territories. Now we’ve got colonies showing up along the Manitoba and Ontario coastlines.”

Duncan also points to the gains of the so-called Ross’s goose, a once endangered species, now thriving in Nunavut.

“We just did a survey of in 1998 of the Queen Maud Gulf area, and it looks like the Ross’s geese are increasing as fast as the lesser snow geese, and now there’s estimated to be a million Ross’s geese in the Queen Maud Gulf area.

“There’s also Ross’s geese now showing up on Baffin Island, and we didn’t think they were ever there before. There’s Ross’s geese now showing up along the coast of Hudson Bay, at the McConnell River area — they hadn’t historically been reported there. So it looks like we’re seeing a range expansion of Ross’s geese as well.”

The Animal Alliance maintains that scientific arguments in favour of the conservation hunt ignore natural ecological forces, and are further weakened by evidence that certain geese populations may already be in decline as a result of habitat degradation.

“The populations have never plummeted as a result of eating out their habitat,” White says. “What happens is there simply is a limit to what the environment will allow in terms of population, and the carrying capacity is set as a result of that: the birds aren’t as big, the young don’t last, they don’t live as long — there are a whole range of things that impact upon the population, that keep it at a certain level that is the carrying capacity in the environment.”

It is the birds’ habit of “grubbing” for food in the spring, before grasses and sedges are mature enough to graze, that is putting the most pressure on young Arctic vegetation.

A study of the birds in La Perouse Bay, south of Churchill, showed the geese literally pull out the young plants’ roots, eventually transforming marshland into mudflats.

That the proposed spring hunt will include the smaller species of Ross’s geese has drawn particular criticism from the likes of the Animal Alliance.

White went so far as to castigate Canadian and U.S. wildlife authorities for abrogating their responsibility with regard to Ross’s geese, for which there is no evidence to suggest their rising population poses a threat to habitat.

“Yes there numbers have climbed, but they have never been considered to be an overabundant species, or one that is as they put it, ‘negatively impacting on the environment.’ But they’ve lumped these birds in with the lesser snow geese, because nobody, no hunter, or not many hunters, that go out into the field can tell the difference between the two,” White says.

White, whose organization continues to fervently oppose fur harvesting in Canada, believes the real source of the proposed spring goose hunt can be traced to the interests of American sport hunters and their thirst for more quarry.

“I think its a push to provide more hunting opportunities to a community that is in serious decline in hopes that it will attract more hunters,” she ways. “And I hope they’re wrong.”

The proposed spring goose hunt, she adds, is a gross violation of conservation and ecological principles, and in direct conflict with the subsistence hunting practised by native Canadians, including Inuit.

“I don’t know a single aboriginal person who would support a massive slaughter of birds. It is the antithesis of what aboriginal persons stand for.”

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