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You’ve Never Heard of a Tule Goose?

Oregon Bird Hunting

Well, you are probably not alone. Oregon is home to a large diversity of geese with Canada geese, cackling geese, greater white-fronted geese, snow geese, Ross’s geese, and brant. Several of these species have been further divided into two or more subspecies. While hunters may be familiar with the various subspecies of Canada and cackling geese due to the goose identification requirements in northwest Oregon, most are likely unaware that Oregon is home to two subspecies of greater white-fronted geese, the tule (Anser albifrons elgasi) and the Pacific (A. a. albifrons).

Most hunters know greater white-fronted geese as “specks” or “specklebellies” due to the black baring on the belly of adult geese or simply “white-fronts”. Hunters who have been lucky enough to encounter white-fronts while hunting have probably found Pacific white-fronts. Well what’s the difference between tule geese and Pacific white-fronts? Tule geese look very similar to Pacific white-fronts, with tule geese being larger, darker brown on the head, neck, and back, and have a larger, more massive bill. Also, tule geese generally have a reduced amount of black baring on their belly than do Pacific white-fronts. However, this feature is variable among individuals making it a poor characteristic for identification. To definitively identify a white-front as a tule, biologists use a series of measurements from the bill.

Tule geese are unique from Pacific white-fronts because of where they nest in Alaska and where they prefer to rest and feed on migration and wintering sites. While Pacific white-fronts that move through Oregon in the spring and fall generally nest on the tundra in western Alaska, tule geese nest in forested areas in southcentral Alaska, principally in the upper Cook Inlet Basin. Additionally, tule geese are usually associated with marsh wetlands, hence the name tule goose, while Pacific white-fronted geese are often found feeding in flooded or dry agricultural areas and meadows. While you can certainly find Pacific white-fronts in marsh wetlands, you’d be less likely to find a tule goose feeding in a flooded pasture or a grain field. Tule geese generally feed on the roots, tubers, and the lower parts of marsh plants such as alkali bulrush and American three-square bulrush.

Tule geese generally begin arriving in Oregon in early September, with a few birds usually appearing earlier, in late August. In the fall, Summer Lake Wildlife Area is an important stopover for a large portion of the population, with some staging for several months. However, some geese may use other marsh areas, like Lower Klamath NWR, or fly straight to the wintering grounds. The winter grounds are found in the northern Sacramento Valley of California, specifically in the area of Colusa, Delevan, and Sacramento National Wildlife Refuges, and in the Delta Region, around Grizzly Island Wildlife Area. In mild winters, a few geese may even winter at Summer Lake. Tule geese usually begin migrating north during the late winter, with some birds showing back up at Summer Lake in January. There are usually more wetland habitats available during the spring so tule geese can often be found in other basins, such as the south Warner Valley, Chewaucan Marshes, and Lower Klamath NWR in California.

So why does any of this matter to us hunters? Currently, there are about 600,000–700,000 Pacific white-fronts wintering in the Pacific Flyway, while there are only about 10,000–15,000 tule geese. Because managers are concerned about the relatively small population of tule geese, hunting regulations in areas frequented by them are more restrictive than areas where usually only Pacific white-fronts are found. For example, the bag limit for white-fronts is 10 per day in Oregon, owing large number of Pacific white-fronts in the Flyway, but it is only 1 per day in Lake County, where tule geese usually stage in the fall. These harvest restrictions help us conserve tule geese, while still allowing some harvest opportunity on the much more abundant Pacific white-fronts.