First in an occasional series exploring a motley collection of issues. Opinions expressed here are solely those of the Wild Edge Blog Mistress, not WordPress.com. Furthermore they are constantly evolving. Feel free to comment, applaud or argue. Try to change my mind! Please keep it respectful and pleasant.
While driving around the perimeter of Middle Creek WMA, I came upon a small flock of geese in a field. I couldn’t believe my luck – they were SO close. Then I put my camera up to my eye, and this is what I saw:
Hmm. Snow goose windsocks. A loudspeaker was playing goose calls, and a man in white coveralls lay prone amidst the faux geese. My first thought was that there was some sort of research project going on.
How naïve. It took several days for me to realize that this was a hunting layout.
Snow goose hunting was banned in 1916 when population numbers were too low. Since the geese discovered the waste grain bounty in the 1970s, snow goose populations have boomed. The Atlantic Flyway population that passes through Pennsylvania has grown from 50,000 in the mid-1960s to over one million in recent years. Other flyway populations are expanding even more. Estimates have placed total growth at close to 9% a year.
It turns out you can have too much of a good thing. The exploding numbers of snow geese have put tremendous pressure on habitats the goose uses. Particularly vulnerable are the fragile Arctic wetlands where the goose breeds. The damage caused by these voracious eating machines not only impacts their own breeding success, but threatens that of nesting shorebirds and other species that share their habitats.
Snow goose hunting was reinstated in the 1970s for population control. Today, a population goal of 500,000 has been set for the Atlantic Flyway population, and in 2008, the USFWS has finalized a Conservation Order allowing Pennsylvania and other states to conduct a Conservation Hunting Season for snow geese. The conservation season differs in that it extends into the migration season, and allows the use of electronic recordings and decoys. Middle Creek WMA is both a refuge for migratory snow geese, and a strictly-monitored hunting area where specially licensed sportsmen can hunt geese for the purpose of population control.
I should mention that there were no live geese to be seen anywhere near that field. Those goose decoys? Clearly the real ones weren’t buying it.
I’ve got a love/hate thing going with hunting. On an individual basis, I hate to see any animal die before its time. Nature has other ideas, of course; big fish eat the little fish, bigger fish eat the big fish, and so on. The cycle of life.
But Man stepped in and started monkeying around with the system, removing predators, destroying habitat, suppressing wildfires, hunting, or banning hunting. We humans bear a heavy burden of responsibility to step in and manage populations so they don’t get out of control.
Take the white-tailed deer, for instance. In Pennsylvania, like so many other places, it’s a pest. Way too many deer are living in habitat that can support a population a tenth of its actual size. The deer destroy the understory that many other critters, from songbirds to small mammals, depend on. Not to mention the damage a car-deer collision can do, to both car and deer, and in my area these encounters are legion.
Deer, and snow geese, are beautiful animals, and I love seeing and photographing them. But I also see the bigger picture. Populations have exploded, largely due to the intervention of Man. Is it right to allow other animals suffer from the habitat depredation caused by the deer and geese? Is it right to allow the deer to starve in the winter when there isn’t enough browse to support the whole population?
I don’t believe so. Are there answers other than hunting? Maybe. I won’t go into deer contraception here. That’s a controversial issue that is beyond the scope of my expertise. I will say only that my gut tells me it’s inadequate to the job of managing the deer effectively. Man created this problem, and has a moral imperative to seek solutions. Well-regulated hunting is an important tool maintaining animal populations at a level healthy for themselves and the other species with which they share their environment.
Sometimes you have to take a step back to see the forest rather than the trees.