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Officials encourage hunters to reduce number of geese

A flock of light geese flies Monday afternoon above state Highway 44 north of Armour. (Chris Huber/Republic)

The migration is upon us.

Strings upon strings of snow geese are making their way north to South Dakota, sending shrill honks and squawks down from the clouds. But officials with the state Game, Fish and Parks Department installed new hunting regulations last year in hopes of making this annual spectacle a little smaller.

Last year was the first time the bag limits were removed for the spring light goose hunting season in South Dakota. The change was made in hopes that more geese would be harvested to curb the exploding population in North America, and it will continue this year. The light goose season allows hunters to bag snow, blue and Ross geese.

Rocco Murano, a senior waterfowl specialist for the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department, proposed doing away with the limit last year.

Murano said harvest numbers of light geese during the spring season were almost identical with 108,000 harvested in South Dakota last year and 110,000 harvested in 2011, but he saw that as a positive.

"Because hunting conditions were better in 2011 than last year but harvest numbers were nearly identical, you can infer that having that unlimited bag limit increased harvest, but there is no way to prove that," Murano said.

Light geese migrate north during the spring season to breeding grounds in Northern Canada. The birds follow the snowline as it melts. The best hunting opportunities occur on that snowline because that is where the highest concentration of birds resides.

But, when South Dakota had little snow last winter, a defined snowline did not exist, causing the migration to happen much sooner than most years.

"There is no doubt in my mind some hunters harvested more geese last year because of unlimited bag limit," Murano said.

Spring goose hunters already had light hunting restrictions, including the use of electronic calls, shotguns without plugs in them and shooting times extending a halfhour past sunset in an attempt to curb the exploding population.

"The U.S. Fish and Wildlife (Service) is doing anything it can to reduce the population of snow geese in the country," Murano said.

He said he thinks this year will provide better hunting conditions for light geese in South Dakota because of the larger snow base above Interstate 90.

"Maybe this year will give us a more accurate comparison as to if unlimited bag limits are increasing bird harvest," he said.

Is the unlimited taking of the problem light geese the new normal for hunters in South Dakota? Murano said he doesn't see it going away anytime soon.

"As long as there is a conservation order, I think there will be unlimited bag limits," he said.

Spring light goose season is open until May 5 and Murano expects the best hunting opportunities to be late March and early April in the state. South Dakota is currently focusing resources on another type of goose, the Canada goose.

Its resident population in the state has greatly outpaced harvests. For the first time the state has set up a spring kill order for volunteers willing to harvest the birds.

More than 1,000 people signed up to help reduce the bird numbers and the GF&P will randomly select 140 people for the permit.

During the spring of 2012, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated a spring population index of nearly 270,000 resident Canada geese in South Dakota. The target population for the state is between 80,000 and 90,000. The large populations of birds are destroying crops.

"This isn't a hunting season," Murano said. "It works very much like our depredation program for other animal species."

Volunteers need to sign up with the GF&P in hopes of drawing a permit to harvest the bird on specific lands set up by the GF&P. Murano said about $700,000 was spent by the GF&P last year because of Canada geese depredation problems. Since 2000, the state has spent more than $4.3 million on the problem.

"The birds are only going to be taken from areas where depredation of crops has been an issue in the past," he said.

Volunteer hunters will not be able to use calls, decoys or blinds, and birds must be shot in flight. Hunters who are drawn for a permit are limited to 50 birds, all of which must be donated to the Sportsmen Against Hunger program.