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Limit lifted to curb goose population

As the seemingly endless strings of geese make their way across crisp blue skies this spring, it's hard not to stand and watch.

Beautiful as the yearly migration may be, it is coming at a heavy price as light geese populations continue to soar, causing their breeding areas in Northern Canada to be stripped of vegetation.

In hopes of curbing the exploding numbers, no daily bag limit is imposed in South Dakota. This year's spring light goose season began Feb. 11 and ends April 29.

According to 2011 GF&P statistics, an estimated 111,355 light geese were harvested during the spring conservation season in South Dakota, and 7,502 of those were taken in Davison County. Those numbers are expected to be down during the 2012 conservation season, because of weather-related issues.

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

"We harvest a high percentage of light geese here in South Dakota, and with the population as high as they are, it just makes sense not to have a limit to try and control them," he said.

According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service population estimates for waterfowl, in the mid-1980s only about 250,000 light geese lived in North America.

By 2004, that number had reached 4.5 million, despite the 1999 conservation order.

As many as 25 million light geese are estimated to live in North America today.

"We are really just trying to do what we can to increase the hunting mortality for these birds," Murano said. "They are destroying huge sections of land in their breeding grounds in Northern Canada."

According to Murano, the birds grab the seeds of small plants along the tundra in the Northwest Territories of Canada, de-vegetating large sections of land.

"When they get done with an area, it basically looks like the face of the moon; there is just nothing left," Murano said.

Eradication of plant life coupled with a short growing season makes regrowth nearly impossible.

In South Dakota, the geese's effect on habitat is much less severe, because the birds are only here for a short amount of time, and most vegetation has not yet started to grow when they pass through.

One explanation for the exploding population is a large food supply of waste grain throughout migration routes.

"As more corn continues to be planted north, what's left after harvest is easy food for snow geese, so instead of being hungry and tired when they get to their breeding grounds, they are in good shape and ready to breed," Murano said.

As light geese migrate north toward breeding grounds, they follow the snowline up the United States.

"With the warm winter we had, we didn't have a very solid snowline, so a lot of those birds just completely blew past South Dakota without staying for long," he said.

Without a snowline to stop birds, Murano said hunters can't determine which fields the birds are staying in, making them more difficult to hunt.

Snow geese are considered a difficult bird to hunt because of the large flocks they travel in, with many sets of eyes to spot danger.

Hunters often set several hundred decoys in a field in hopes of enticing the birds into shotgun range.

The age of the geese is also a factor while hunting. According to Murano, it's not uncommon for a goose to live 15 or more years.

"If you have an old goose, they have seen a lot of decoy spreads and a lot of hunters in those years, so they are going to be a lot more cautious and won't decoy as well," he said.

Juvenile birds, on the other hand, will be less reluctant to enter decoy spreads.

While it's good to harvest any light geese, according to Murano, only harvesting young birds won't control population numbers.

"When we look to control a population, we want to harvest adults, because those are the animals that are of breeding age," he said. "If we only take young animals who weren't going to breed anyways, it's not going to have as big of an effect."

If population numbers don't begin to dip in the coming years, more steps will need to be taken to reduce numbers, according to Murano.

"Obviously, there are many social and economic factors to consider, but if something doesn't change, the birds may need to be rounded up and basically disposed of when they are on their breeding grounds to control the population," Murano said. "We have to do something."