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The Challenges of Managing Canada Geese

By Ted Nichols, Wildlife Biologist

From Where Do They Originate?

Atlantic Population Canada geese nest in the boreal forest and tundra of northern Quebec with the densest populations along the Ungava Bay and Hudson Bay coasts. North Atlantic Population geese nest further east in Newfoundland, Labrador, and Greenland. Collectively, Atlantic Population and North Atlantic Population geese are informally known as migrant geese since they breed in the sub-arctic and migrate south to spend winter. Atlantic Population geese winter throughout eastern North America, but are most concentrated in the mid-Atlantic (including New Jersey) and Delmarva. North Atlantic Population geese have a strong coastal affinity, wintering from Prince Edward Island to North Carolina with the core wintering area from Long Island and north. Resident Population geese breed in southern Canada and throughout the US and generally make no or relatively short migrations in winter.

All three populations of geese readily mix in fall and winter; Resident Population geese are also present in the states during spring and summer. Resident Population geese have adapted readily to our human-dominated landscape and are generally the goose population responsible for damage complaints regarding fecal droppings and poor water quality.

Although geese from these three populations look similar and are considered the same species (Branta canadensis) they are different subspecies or races. Atlantic Population and North Atlantic Population geese collectively belong to the races B. c. interior and B. c. canadensis while Resident Population geese are primarily derived from a mix of mid-latitude race geese including B. c. maxima and B. c. moffitti. Atlantic Population and North Atlantic Population geese are slightly smaller physically than Resident Population geese although there is considerable overlap in their skeletal size.

Geese are animals that are tremendously philopatric, or faithful, to their breeding areas. Banding data suggest that geese generally remain in the same breeding population through their lives. Contrary to popular belief, Atlantic Population and/or North Atlantic Population geese do not stop migrating or switch to live the leisurely life of Resident Population geese. Atlantic Population and/or North Atlantic Population geese hatched in the boreal forest or tundra continue to migrate and return there to nest while Resident Population geese stay in mid-latitude areas to nest.

Gosling Survival

Geese from the different populations face very different circumstances in their life histories given the geographic location of their breeding areas. For Atlantic Population and North Atlantic Population geese, young production can vary dramatically from year to year, largely dependent on the timing of snowmelt as well as the frequency and duration of late spring (June) snowstorms in their northern clime.

During years when snowmelt is late, migrant geese may completely forego nesting. Resident Population geese, on the other hand, consistently produce a large number of young since they breed in relatively stable mid-latitude climates. In addition, Resident Population goslings face relatively few predators when compared to their sub-arctic breeding cousins that routinely face arctic fox. These fox populations vary considerably, largely dependent on cyclic abundance of small mammals, particularly lemmings. When lemming populations crash, foxes must switch to alternate prey, and during these years, can have a significant impact on gosling production. Survival rates of adult geese can be vary greatly as well.

Population Pressures

Atlantic Population and North Atlantic Population geese must face the rigors of migration during both fall and spring. In addition, sport hunting can have a significant impact on survival rates of long-lived birds such as Canada geese, and as such, must be strictly regulated. Atlantic Population and North Atlantic Population geese can be subjected to significant hunting pressure as they pass through two countries and several states that may have hunting seasons with staggered opening dates. In addition, Atlantic Population and North Atlantic Population geese also face considerable hunting pressure from native, subsistence hunters in Canada when the geese return to breeding areas in the spring. Resident Population geese, on the other hand, spend much of their time in parks, golf courses and corporate campuses where they are relatively inaccessible to hunters. These differences in young production and survival are the key components that govern the status of these three populations of Canada geese.

Looks Can Be Deceiving

Because Canada geese from different populations look similar physically and cannot be distinguished from one another in a hunting situation or even in hand, harvest regulations can be constrained by the population with the lowest ability to withstand hunting pressure when multiple populations of Canada geese are mixed together. This is the case in New Jersey during fall and winter when Atlantic Population geese are mixed with Resident Population geese throughout the state.

This period when Canada goose populations are admixed corresponds with the regular season, that is, the traditional goose hunting season from November through January—the preferred hunting period for the majority of waterfowlers. In most geographic areas of North America, including New Jersey, one or more populations of sub-arctic nesting migrant Canada geese can become the limiting factor when setting season length and bag limits for these birds in that geographic area. Figure 1 shows the locations of Atlantic Population band recoveries in New Jersey. Although 644 band recoveries over the course of 30 years may not seem like much, it is important to remember that each individual band recovery represents many hundreds of harvested Atlantic Population geese.

Harvest By Design

To manage and provide opportunity to hunt Resident Population geese but avoid harvest of North Atlantic Population or Atlantic Population geese, special seasons are designed to harvest Resident Population geese when and where possible. For example, September seasons occur before the onset of migration thereby directing all harvest pressure at Resident Population geese, the reason why special regulations including liberal bag limits, unplugged shotguns and extended shooting hours are permitted. In New Jersey, special winter seasons, also with liberal bag limits, are held in areas of the state that have relatively low populations of Atlantic Population and North Atlantic Population geese during late winter.

Hunters harvest about 40,000 Canada geese annually in New Jersey. Band recovery data suggest that nearly all September season harvest—and about 80 percent of special winter season Canada goose harvest—is comprised of Resident Population geese. During the regular season in New Jersey, about two thirds of the Canada goose harvest is comprised of Resident Population geese, with the remaining one third made up by North Atlantic Population and Atlantic Population geese.

Balancing Act

Most people agree that Resident Population geese are overabundant through most of their range, including New Jersey, and that their population needs to be reduced. Atlantic Population geese, however, have been more abundant in the past, and their migratory flights in October, along with changing leaves, apple cider and crisp nights, are among the most treasured of autumn pleasures.

Despite the overabundance of Resident Population geese, wildlife biologists have the responsibility to maintain populations of Atlantic Population and North Atlantic Population geese for sport hunters in the United States and Canada, for subsistence Inuit and Cree hunters in the Canadian arctic and for wildlife viewers in both countries. Maintaining the historic biodiversity of these continental migrant Canada goose populations is also important. Since the regular season occurs when all three populations are mixed, it is this regular season—including the number of hunting days, bag limit and framework dates (earliest and latest dates when these seasons may occur)—that is most often adjusted by wildlife managers to ensure that migrant Atlantic Population and North Atlantic Population geese remain healthy.


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