How Much?

by Rex Burress


During the winter of 1999, I took great delight in seeing large flocks of snow geese descend on the Gray Lodge Refuge marshes. There is an incredible moment when the skies are filled with white wings waving in the wind against the blue heavens and the call of the wild fills the air.

When a hundred thousand snow geese flutter downward like snowflakes descending to earth, the bird watcher is filled with gratitude, both in seeing such a stunning sight, and also in the realization that nature is healthy and thriving.

Imagine my dismay when I read that the government is giving hunters new freedom in shooting hundreds of thousands of additional snow geese as they migrate north this year! Apparently, snow geese have been so successful under wildlife management that they have multiplied to the point of imperiling Canadian tundra. Over the last three decades, according to the figures presented by the Department of Interior, the population of snow geese has exploded from 800,000 to an estimated 5 million.

What a dilemma! This is in a way, market hunting gone legal. The goal is to reduce the snow goose population by 50% and even kill off young birds before they migrate if necessary. This policy goes against every grain of conservation measures torturously pursued by Ducks Unlimited, State and Federal Wildlife Agencies over the last one hundred years. What is the answer?

The extended hunting season has been denounced by the Humane Society of the United States and promises a lawsuit, contending that the expanded hunt violates laws protecting migratory birds. "The ecosystem problem ought to be resolved in the Arctic and not by the indiscriminate slaughter of birds as they migrate," said John Grandy, the group's vice president.

"If we do not take action, we risk not only the health of the Arctic breeding grounds, but also the future of many of America's migratory bird populations," said Fish and Wildlife Director Jamie Rappaport Clark. "During the warm months, the birds grub into the tundra, destroying plant roots and the area's thin layer of topsoil. That disturbs the feeding grounds for other migratory birds."

How is the conservationist and bird lover going to handle this disturbing new thought on a population problem? Ever since I was a boy in Missouri when the Missouri Department of Conservation instilled into me the values of conserving and protecting our natural resources, I have tried to aid the effort to obtain habitats and save wildlife for future generations. It was typed into me for 32 years while I worked for the Oakland Park Department Naturalist program, when Naturalist Paul Covel practiced super-effort conservation policies. When I hunted and fished on the Missouri farm, I observed the rules and regulations proclaimed in the Code Book, understanding that the management was scientific and designed to protect wildlife populations.

There has been a great increase in starling and crow populations; is the answer to control by shooting? I understand there is a great overpopulation of people in Africa and India. I'm not so sure they should be shot, although wars seem to provide that path.

Should the Arctic tundra just be allowed to proceed naturally, and if it is damaged to where birds are starving, should they just be allowed to die naturally? Disease may dilute populations. Can we control wildlife by destroying the surplus? I have also learned that "the harvest of the surplus is good conservation," hence I have always been pro-hunter because that is involved in the balance of nature as exists in present times.

Lake Merritt in Oakland has had an explosion of Canada geese in the last 10 years, and now as many as 1,000 may congregate on the lawns, to the annoyance of people walking through their droppings on the walkways. The sight of flying geese in the sterile confines of the city is one of the finest moments the residents can experience. So far physical control has not been initiated, but some reduction measure may be contrived. Other cities across America have experienced problems with large goose populations.

During the same week of graphic nature news, an item appeared about killing sea lions as a way to save endangered salmon. It seems the sea lion and seal populations have also thrived and are consuming tremendous quantities of fish, especially where migrating salmon are massed. "In a report to Congress, the National Marine Fisheries Service asked for authority to kill sea lions and harbor seals that feast on endangered fish at "unnatural" settings, such as fish ladders below dams, and to kill them where they conflict with and possibly endanger humans at such facilities as public beaches."

They are also recommending that commercial fishermen be allowed to shoot sea lions tangled in their nets." Now who has the most rights, fish or sea lions? Or salmon fishermen? How much lobbying by fishing industries is involved in this issue?

There is a huge issue revolving around the snow geese and the sea lions. How much should man interfere, or how much control should be used, in the balances of various species? Many policies seemingly are of good intent, such as the extraordinary effort to save the California Condor. Should those millions have been spent to rescue a dying species that may not be able to adapt to civilization? When should the line be drawn between conservation and economy?

It would be difficult to believe that the snow goose will become an endangered species, yet, that is a possibility if hunters shoot too many or the food supply diminishes. Sad will be the day if we go to the Gray Lodge marshes and fail to see the wintertime glory of 10,000 snow geese filling the sky with beauty. Yet, as more and more land and water spaces are consumed by an expanding human population and industry, living space for the wildlife and wildlife watchers may be equally effected.

"Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the song without words,
And never stops at all."
        --Emily Dickinson


© 1999 Rex Burress
February 17, 1999