Let’s talk snow geese past, present and future. As long-time wildlife research scientist for Environment Canada, Dr. Ray Alisauskus’s expertise is arctic geese. From a small cabin in prairie Canada, he describes snow goose-related activities keeping him busy during the fall, events leading to the now 24 years-old Light Goose Conservation Order, why the geese have been “winning” for the past couple decades, why mid-continent snow goose productivity is waning.  What might it all mean? Importantly, what’s this year’s hatch look like for us white goose hunters?

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Chasing Geese

Ramsey Russell: Welcome back to Duck Season Somewhere, I am in Saskatchewan, I’ve been chasing waterfowl and I’m proud to have today’s guests meet Mr. Ray Alisauskus, who is a Wildlife Researcher for Environment Canada, Science and Technology. Ray, thank you for joining me today.

Dr. Ray Alisauskus: Pleasure’s mine.

Ramsey Russell: I’ve tried to swing by and tried to arrange a meeting with you in the past, but you’re a very busy man this time of year. And I know you all are doing a lot of field work, counting gray birds out here, across Canada. What’s up with that?

Dr. Ray Alisauskus: Yeah. Well, that’s something we’ve been doing for the last 30 or so years, part of the research that I was involved in, that spanned, work in the Arctic, but also here on the prairies and it gives us an index of production, what had gone on in the Arctic in terms of, how well the birds had reproduced and contributed to the fall flight. So, I mean, it’s a matter of driving around, finding sizeable flocks and then counting the ratio of young birds to adults. And for snow geese, it’s pretty straightforward that as the gray heads versus the white heads, so that ratio but you can also do it with white fronted geese, Ross’ geese, although Canada’s, you can’t really tell the ages apart, because they both have the white cheek patches and so on. So we do that, I’ve been doing it since probably the early 90s and it gives us a nice – over the longer term, it lets us see what’s going on in terms of any changes in that production, long terms. We get year to year fluctuations, but we’ve also notice the long term decline in a number of young produce certainly for ross geese, snow geese and midcontinent white fronts, the white fronts would go through Saskatchewan in Alberta anyway and end up in the midcontinent of the US. So these birds, it’s easy to do and the programs actually expanded now so that it’s become an operational program with the Canadian Wildlife service, my colleagues in CWS taken up and to cover a lot more ground than I was able to alone. I would just focus on this area of Saskatchewan which reflected where we were working in the Artic in a central Arctic, south of Queen Maud Gulf at a colony that was surrounding Carrick Lake. But now with the expansion into Alberta and Manitoba, the team can get information on production for example, birds from Baffin Island way to the east of the Arctic in addition to the central Arctic and other places, South Hampton Island in between Queen Maud and Baffin. And then also the western Arctic birds, if you go to Alberta, there’s hardly any blue geese there and that’s because those birds come from Pacific Flyway birds. So they kind of swing through here or through there, I should say. So yeah, there’s lots going on, there’s lots of different flyways for each population of geese, depending where they hail from. Some of them converge, others have their own flyaway. And so, where things mix up, it gets to be a bit of a jumble to kind of tease apart, but it’s still all good information. And give us an idea of what the fall flight will be like and if you’re a hunter, anyone who hunts that the more young birds are, the better the success and they’re a lot more vulnerable to decoys.

Ramsey Russell: I’ve been asked by a few biologists like yourself what am I seeing in terms of gray birds? And I’m like, well, we’re seeing a bunch of gray birds in the decoys. That’s what constitutes most our bag.

A Decline in Geese Numbers?

What’s leading to the lower productivity? If it’s not a conservation order, if it’s not hunting pressure, what’s contributing to that?

Dr. Ray Alisauskus: Yeah, that’s the thing. And what you get in the decoys is not necessarily reflecting, what you see out in field in in the population as a whole. Again, because the young birds are more vulnerable, they tend to decoy and bring their parents in and so on. There’s this thing called the vulnerability index and the young geese are generally about at least twice as vulnerable as adults. And the way you can calculate that is if say, you band 100 adults and band 100 young birds and then, they fly through the flyaway and get hunted and so we get a band recovery rate. So the young birds might be 4% recovery rate out of that 100 whereas the adults would be, say, 2 out of the 100 so that 4 divided by 2 or that 4% divided by 2% is the vulnerability index. So, young geese always have a higher vulnerability than the adults and so that’s the problem when you try to judge what’s going on, strictly from hunter bags. So that’s why we do these age ratios in scanning live flocks, so it’s a little less biased by that vulnerability.

Ramsey Russell: Put me on a map here, what’s a good ratio? I might hear glassing this flock, what’s good? What are the percentages you’re looking for, I want to say.

Dr. Ray Alisauskus: Well, anything over 15, 20, I mean, they used to be as high as 30% and most years, for ross geese, for example, back in the 90s, but it’s dropped down not about 10%. And ross geese always tend to do a little better than the snow geese and the white fronts it seems, but they’re all low. I think I’m seeing about less than 10% young in the snow goose flocks. And so it’s chronically low and that’s part of the reason why snow geese at least are seem to be declining, over the long term. I mean, after a huge increase through the 70s, 80s and 90s and the start of the conservation order, they seem to have been declining now and it isn’t because of the conservation order because adult survival has remained high. It’s currently about 90% or at least the 10 year average between 2005 and 2016 or so. It’s 90% for birds across the high Arctic for midcontinent snow geese. Whereas, juvenile survival has been declining, so the production of new birds hasn’t been high enough to replace the death rate of old birds, older adults.

Ramsey Russell: What’s leading to the lower productivity? If it’s not a conservation order, if it’s not hunting pressure, what’s contributing to that?

Dr. Ray Alisauskus: Well, we have a good idea, I think, at least in the central Arctic, like, midcontinent birds nest in a lot of different places in in Arctic Canada. And so where I was focused with my colleagues and folks in the central Arctic and students that have worked with me – Again, around Carrick Lake is, we’ve noticed that the decline – it isn’t just the birds that come through here that are declined, there’s fewer birds getting on the wing and we can measure that during banding because what we catch there, we get young birds and adults, but that age ratio at banding has also declined, quite a bit. And one of the things – again, the central Arctic around South of Queen Maud Gulf is, there’s this timing of snow melt has become earlier and earlier. And we’ve all heard about climate change, well, it seems to be manifesting itself a little bit at least in the central Arctic, not sure if it’s going on in Baffin Island and so on and there hasn’t been long term on the ground studies there. But we found it as the snow melts earlier, generally, that’s thought to be a good outcome for geese because as the birds migrate north and get to the Arctic, they have to store up fat and protein reserves and if the snow melts early enough, then they can start nesting right away. But if the snow melts too early, then they don’t have time to put on those reserves, right? They’re on the schedule and timetable. So if snow melts too early, they nest before they’re “ready” I think that’s part of the problem. And again, this is strictly focusing on the central Arctic that we’ve looked at this, when that happens, the grass that the goslings rely on starts to grow earlier and it hits peak nitrogen before the goslings need it, so there’s this mismatch, it’s called phenological mismatch. So what was early, if it’s too early isn’t good either in terms of production of new young and we’ve seen declines in the survival rate of the goslings from hatch to fledging, when they take on the ring, we’ve also seen declines in survival of the young goslings after they’re flying, able to fly in that first year of life, that’s also kind of nosedive. And we’ve seen declines in the condition that I guess, the healthiness nutritional status of these young birds over the last 30 years. So all these things have contributed to the decline in the production of new birds that end up flying south through Saskatchewan that we see here. And then coupled with that, we’re seeing an overall decline in the whole midcontinent population of adults. And again, that’s because we haven’t got the young to replace the adults that are diving, even though, the survival rate is very high, if it’s 90%, that means the mortality is 10%. So even that 10% mortality, even though it’s relatively low compared to historical values, we haven’t got enough young to replace those relatively small proportion of adults that do die. I mean, snow geese are pretty good at surviving these days.

Ramsey Russell: Oh, are they?

Dr. Ray Alisauskus: Yeah.

Ramsey Russell: But the breeding adult birds that are more difficult to kill, than the hatcher birds. Are they growing more into non-breeders that aren’t breeding at all? Is that distribution starting to kind of become skewed towards that non breeding side?

Dr. Ray Alisauskus: Right. Yeah. I think that’s part of the story. I mean, there’s a lot more non-breeders than there used to be, again 30 years ago, I don’t know what the percentage is because we would just focus on in the colony, we’d see what was nesting there. So we have a good population estimate of the number of breeders and the young they produce. But what we couldn’t get was how many non-breeders there are. And I suspect that’s increased the proportion of non-breeders making up the adult population has increased. And so there’s fewer adults breeding and of the ones that do, they don’t produce as well as they used to. Again, because of this lower gosling survival, due to earlier springs or excessively early springs, let’s say, for birds for midcontinent snow geese from the central Arctic.

Ramsey Russell: Did you grow up here in Saskatchewan? Is that your background?

Dr. Ray Alisauskus: No. I grew up in a pretty urban area in Montreal actually, but Montreal is an island and a fairly large set of islands in the Saint Lawrence River. And so when I was growing, I’ve always liked wetlands and marshes so along the river, there was cattail and ducks and I didn’t hunt back then, I was a little kid, but you could hear guys hunting, bang, as you were walking to school, a mile or 2 away. So there was something about that and I know, my mom used to cook ducks, like game farm ones when I was a little kid, I just used to love to taste it. So, eventually, I said, I got to get my own ducks someday and then I don’t know.

Ramsey Russell: Do you remember getting into duck hunting? When did you get into hunting waterfowl and how?

A Banding Focus

Dr. Ray Alisauskus: Just with a couple of buddies, we never did very well. I think I bought my first shotgun in 1970 something at the Kmart, well, Winchester Pump or something like that, I can’t even remember. But, yeah, we went up North of Montreal or west of Montreal just trying to get geese and so on or we’re on a lake of 2 mountains, a guy took me out a colleague, student of mine friend, hunting blue bills, Lake Saint Francis and so on. So yeah, it was a mix of things, never very good at it. And then I went to pursuit my masters and PhD with my supervisor Dave Ancney who I’m sure a lot of duck hunters know of and certainly in the waterfowl science community Dave is well respected, unfortunately, passed away about 11 years ago or so, 2013, I think it was. But yeah, I went to school with Dave, he was my supervisor, I did a masters and PhD on snow geese. And then, Dave was a big duck hunter and so he showed me the ropes, we’d go to long point on Lake Erie in North Shore and spent a lot of time hunting ducks in the marsh there on weekends and so on.

Ramsey Russell: Did your interest in the outdoors put you on the path to go to wildlife studies?

Dr. Ray Alisauskus: Yeah. I’ve always been interested in animals and being outside, as a boy scout, we’d go camping and wilderness type camping, even as little kids with minimal, just cook your own stuff and how to make bread on a stick and all that, I don’t know, I liked it. And being outside, being in nature and all the rest of it, that whole ball of wax appealed to me and still does, I mean, so hopefully we can keep going, keep rolling that ball of wax here for a few more years and enjoying life.

Ramsey Russell: What were you doing in 1997, 1998 time frame when the conservation order started being talked about. What were you doing in that time frame career wise and where were you with snow geese then?

Dr. Ray Alisauskus: Well, okay. I started our research camp in, Carrick Lake in the central Arctic we’ve already discussed some of the results from 1991 and then, got a sort of a standard operating protocol for measuring what was going on in colony with my assist in Dana Kellet, my technician in 1993, who has kind of led the work since 1999, they’re up in the field. And so in 1997, there’s been a lot of talk. Well, actually, we mentioned Dave Angney in about 1996 he published the paper about it was called an embarrassment of riches in the Journal of Wildlife Management. It was kind of a seminal paper that kind of opened up the whole thinking about should waterfowl be managed and hunting through harvest if it’s possible? And that was one of the things that Dave was arguing that because of habitat change in certain parts of the Arctic that we knew was going on in small areas, he advocated for, well, let’s manage these things, if they’re harming the ecosystem in the article, maybe we should be hunting them more to skill, that level of alteration or some folks call it damage back. And a lot of this work was focused in the sub-arctic, places like Bruce Bay, for example or Akimiski Island where it wasn’t necessarily a representative of the midcontinent, but I mean, it was economically viable to study populations there because it’s relatively easy to get to and access and so on. But we needed to study things in the Arctic, so we got the snow geese in the sub-arctic, but then we’re going to have snow geese in the Arctic in the midcontinent snow geese in central Arctic, South Hampton and Baffin Island, where 90%, that latitude north of Hudson Bay, 90% of midcontinent snows nest and only about 10% nested in the sub-arctic. So we needed to expand sort of our focus, beyond the sub-arctic study areas into Arctic study areas and get a more representative feel for what’s going on with those, that included that 90% of birds. So in 1997, I’ve been working on, snow geese at Carrick Lake banding them, we’ve since, with our colleagues at CWS expanded that banding into South Hampton on annual basis. My colleague, you’ve talked to Jim Leaflore. And so that’s kind of in his shop with Canadian Wildlife Service, the Artic Goose Banding Program and those guys know what they’re doing and so we were able to hand that off, and they were able to expand it and get a really comprehensive banding program going beyond just what we were doing in the central Arctic. So, yeah, that’s what I was doing back in 1997, discussions with colleagues, reading about what the options are for trying to manage snow geese. Everyone thought you could shoot these guys down and affect their survival. Well, with this banding, we’ve learned that that’s not the case, it seems that, survival is increased of adult survival and it’s up to 90%, it’s still 90%, at least as of 3, 4 years ago, those estimates need to be updated with some more analyses, but that banding program really lets us look at what the adult dynamic that’s going on. And then on the ground studies and the age ratio stuff, we’d mentioned earlier, gives us an idea of the number of new geese that are coming in to replace the adults that die. So getting those two bits of information gets us some idea about what’s behind changes in the overall population. Is it adult survival or is it the changes in recruitment or production of new young and it seems like it’s the latter, the decline in the number of new goslings that are seems to be driving the population downward for Midcontinent snow geese.

Ramsey Russell: So in 1998, I had been hunting some of my first trips away from Mississippi and waterfowl were down in the Garwood Prairie, the Katy Prairie down in that region shooting snow geese and there were still a lot of snow geese down there on those rice prairies and the limit was 5 birds and on the best of days, you could go shoot 5 snow geese. And in 1998, I just happened to be in the right place, right time got invited to a little think tank group Fish & Wildlife going around brainstorming about, hey, we got to do something, these birds are out of control, they’re eating themselves out of house and the prevailing thought was based on some of you all’s data was, somebody said, well, let’s go shoot them out, we can shoot them. And I bring it up, Ray, because I’ve been to Netherlands where the birds just, because of non-hunting got completely out of control of the geese and then we’ve got a lot of these resident Canada goose populations and it’s a goose and they’re smarter than a lot of ducks. And I don’t see where hunting can control and out of a burgeoning goose population.

Who Runs What?

Do ducks run guns or guns run ducks in the duck world?

Dr. Ray Alisauskus: Yeah. That’s part of the debate. Do ducks run guns or guns run ducks in the duck world? And the same applies to the snow geese or geese in general, part of it depends on, the population size and so it’s important to have a good idea of how many there actually are. For example, the midcontinent birds, the measure that they used to use is, it was called the mid-wintering count. And that thing went from about a million in the 70s up to 3 or 4, 5 million in the 80s and even now. But when you use other methods to estimate how many are there the abundance of midcontinent birds like the Lincoln index, for example, using band recovery and harvest data combining those, you get it back maybe in the early 2000s, but I can’t remember the numbers, but about 20 million adult snow geese versus 5. So Knowing that there’s 20 million versus a population that there’s only a million safe or greater snow geese, which one do you think you’ll have more influence on, right? I mean, plus the size of the range. So the number of birds that you’re trying to manage is, an important consideration in your ability to manage those birds. I mean, you could try, but you’re going to be more successful trying to manage a smaller population than a larger population. And so, yeah, I mean, midcontinent snow geese are, they’re winning.

Ramsey Russell: Yeah.

Dr. Ray Alisauskus: I mean, in terms of the auto survival equation, they haven’t been able to increase harvest enough, it’s only about 3% harvest rate on adults, you hear about all these birds getting shot, but only 3 out of a 100 get shot in any one year. So that’s not enough to drive survival downward, increase the mortality rate on the adults.

Snow Goose Population Control

Ramsey Russell: Is there any hindsight 2020 if you could roll back to those late 90s? Is there any other options you all might have explored or would have considered or could have been implemented to control those snow geese?

Dr. Ray Alisauskus: Yeah. There was a working group, direct control, I was involved in that to try to figure out, what it would take to do, not necessarily a proponent of calls or that kind of thing, but could you go to a colony and just with sharpshooters and all kind of stuff, try to shoot them down on the breeding grounds and so what do you do with all the carcasses? What do you do? You leave them there, do you ship them back to the communities? So we did this cost analysis and it was like millions and millions of dollars. And so I think, the thinking was that, well, we’ve already got the infrastructure through a hunting community to try and implement a management approach to reducing survival of the adults, even though we didn’t know it would be tough to do, but that was the sort of decision made among management agencies to try to deal with what was thought to be a problem of “too many snow geese”. And it seems though that the birds are kind of taking care of it themselves despite our best efforts to kind of “shoot them down” harvest them to an extent that it affects their survival rate enough that it drives the population down, given what the production of young is. So those two things come into play and we haven’t been able to do that as an effort, a North American effort to manage the population size downward, it’s going down, but not because of our ability to shoot birds.

Ramsey Russell: Why did snow geese population just all of a sudden explode anyway?

Dr. Ray Alisauskus: Well, I think one of them, probably the most important thing was their expansion back in the 60s, 70s and 80s from – I think you mentioned when you’re in Mississippi, you see them fly overhead, they just sort of disappear south and that was true even in along the coast, Texas, Louisiana, because the birds would just hit the marsh, they were pretty well stuck on those part of marshes, I mean, their bill morphology, that’s what they evolved doing was feeding in those marsh is a big chisel head and then the case of greater snow geese.

Ramsey Russell: Grubbing on stuff in the marsh.

Dr. Ray Alisauskus: Yeah. Making crevice and whatnot in the cajun marshes down there, not only cajun, but Texas, Louisiana, especially, all around that Gulf Coast. And then with the rice agriculture, it’s well known the birds had expanded inward inland, with that ag because of the supply of water and rye grass also, the green feed, but also waste rice, which tended to get cleaned up and then they switched to the rye grass that was aerial eat it for cattle, but then they’d get in there and start grazing that. So, that was part of it, that the feeding conditions improve so that the adults started surviving better and this is well documented by other colleagues of mine, Charles Francis has published a paper in ecology that showed this increase in survival from 75% to over 85% or whatever it was of adult survival and now it’s 90% percent. And so there was that, there was the increase in adult survival and I also think part of what was behind the increase was a range expansion on their breeding grounds. Where I worked in the central Arctic in the 60s and 70s, there weren’t that many snow geese, there were ross geese, that was the center of the ross goose “universe”, but there weren’t many snow geese until the 70s and 80s. And then snow geese started increasing. John Rider, a great scientist, that was at LU, Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, he’d done a lot of pioneering work in the Arctic with the ross geese, but in the meantime had documented increasing numbers of snow geese. And then, yeah, they just took off in that central Arctic, so where you had a range of geese nesting east to west that was relatively narrow, all of a sudden now, they expanded westward into central Arctic. And so the birds there, they’d hit this area that had abundant feed, it’s the biggest migratory bird sanctuary in the world, I understand. The Queen Maud Gulf Migratory Bird Sanctuary. There weren’t that many birds there. There’s some white fronts and ross geese there, but the snow geese just took off there and started exploding.

What Changed Snow Geese Migration Patterns?

Ramsey Russell: Was there some climate change that was making that more accessible or was it their population that growing and they just began to expand into these new areas?

Dr. Ray Alisauskus: Yeah, snow geese move, they do both. They tend to show philopatry, their affinity to come back to where they where they were produced as babies, they come back and try to nest there. And they’ll do that, until if they get a series of years they might fail, they’ll give up and they’ll move somewhere else. And part of it is a roll of the dice. Some of them get moved during spring migration, it might be a storm. For example, ross geese weren’t very abundant on the West Coast of Hudson Bay. And in the mid 90s, they just boom showed up, the people who lived there that you knew it, all of a sudden started describing these ross geese, like, these little white snow geese with the weird warty noses and so on. And they showed up, kind of colonized the West Coast of Hudson Bay whereas before there were very few, before that time. And now, I don’t know what’s going on there, I don’t think we’ve been banding very many ross geese in West Coast and Hudson Bay, but they expanded eastward from the central Arctic into the West Coast of the Hudson Bay. So these birds they have traditions, but the traditions change and so it is pretty dynamic in that way it makes it kind of interesting for me as a scientist to try to understand what’s driving the distributions and their overall abundance. And then, you’ve got these subpopulations like they’re all behaving somewhat differently, but what does that do to the overall population? So it can get kind of complicated, but anyway to answer your question, they do move, if they have to.

Overlapping Populations: Blue Geese and Snow Geese

They can change “where they want to go” and also the foods, they can explore, they can eat grains, they can eat rhizomes, they can graze on green vegetation. 

Ramsey Russell: It seems like, you just reminded me something you talked about at Hudson Bay and the ross geese, seems like I read a long time ago in grad school that at one time in history, the blue geese, the blue morph and the white morph were almost separate breeding populations on relative to Hudson Bay and at some point in time, they began to overlap.

Dr. Ray Alisauskus: Yeah. Those blue geese are kind of neat, I mean, again, they’re mostly in the eastern part of midcontinent range, like on Baffin Island, there’s largely blue geese there. And then, go to Manitoba, that’s what you see. Like, from a distance, you’ll see the clouds of snow geese and they look like salt and pepper from a distance, whereas the birds around here are mostly white when you see a big wad of them get up and you can really notice the difference. And also on the wintering grounds, the blue geese tended to be in Louisiana, some old peppers from McIlhenny, Tabasco sauce. Yeah. So here’s quite a naturalist and so they described business in the 30s, how the snow is not – as we mentioned that you wouldn’t see them outside the marsh hardly, they migrate from Hudson Bay in 40 hours make a direct flight right to those salt marshes, they’d show up there and the tanks were empty, they were just scrawny and had to get crunching on those spartina rhizomes and tubers and so on. So, the blue geese were in the Delta Atchafalaya and then, Rockefeller and places like that, along the south coast of Louisiana. But in the marsh, for example, just inland from Rockefeller on north of the intercostal waterway, didn’t used to see any geese, my understanding what I’ve read before the 70s and so on. But then, yeah, just like in Texas, they expanded inward to the rice culture inland and yeah, they’re very adaptable and highly plastic on what they can do. They can change “where they want to go” and also the foods, they can explore, they can eat grains, they can eat rhizomes, they can graze on green vegetation. So, yeah, they’re very adaptable.

Ramsey Russell: You see that a lot down on the wintering ground where, maybe not so much in the marsh anymore, but I see later in the spring, they really key in on the winter wheat first versus the rice and stuff that something’s going on to where they’re – I’ve seen them transition to the wheat, seems like.

Dr. Ray Alisauskus: Yeah. There’s some of my PhD work show, during the nutrition of these birds during spring migration, you could see a little increase in the amount of protein they carried and so that green stuff has more protein. And so, they need that, because they got to bulk up on the muscles to get them flying. They also need fuel in the way of fat. But they’re getting enough to roll up the flyway, they’re focusing on getting muscular and you could see them build that protein a little bit early in migration. Then as they’re rolling up the flyway through the decode as in up through Manitoba, here in Saskatchewan in the spring, they’re putting on more and more fat. Because once they leave here, there’s very little food. I mean, they can forage on, roots and rhizomes and berries and that kind of thing, north of the prairies, north of the agricultural zone, but it it’s tough going. So they try to fill those tanks, the fat tanks and the protein tanks, the reserves before they leave here. And so they really focus on getting fat later in migration at these northern latitudes and that’s why you see when they get here, usually in the spring, they’re pretty greasy, they’re pretty fat. And same thing going south, they’re fattening up here now to make that flight south, but when they get to the winter and grounds, they don’t need to have the fat reserves because there’s kind of like a guaranteed food supply, so they’ve evolved these strategies to load up when they need to. And there’s some cost of being overly loaded up with fat and protein you can’t fly as well, an eagle can nail you quicker if you’re – little things like that. So over evolutionary time, these things have, let’s say, not learn, but the guys that aren’t doing the right thing in their circumstance tend to get picked off and killed and whereas the ones that are doing the things that are allowing to survive, obviously, survive and then their kids, their offspring tend to inherit the same sorts of behaviors, let’s say, and physiologies as the parents doing. And so that evolution leads to what we have now in terms of the adaptability of snow geese.

Ramsey Russell: A lot of the conservation order that originated with what we call the midcontinent population of snows. How does that contrast to the Atlantic population, the greater snows and to some of those snow goose populations that migrate down to California.

Dr. Ray Alisauskus: Yeah. Well, they are different populations. So going from West to East, the ones that go to California tend to – well, Pacific flyway birds, they tend to nest on Banks Island, Wrangel Island in Russia and they end up in Vancouver and but also down in the Central Valley and in Klamath basin and so on. And although, I’ve read the Klamath it’s pretty well dry right now. I saw that in some magazines –

Ramsey Russell: It’s all over the news right now or ducking hunting world.

Dr. Ray Alisauskus: Right. So no water, no waterfowl, I mean, there’s no secret there. But anyway, yeah, those western or Pacific flyway, we call them Western Arctic because our focus is from Canada or mine is, anyway and my colleagues at work in Canada. But, yeah, they’re the birds that end up in California and so on.

Ramsey Russell: What’s constraining their population? Why didn’t they explode?

Dr. Ray Alisauskus: Well, they actually have growing, like, for whatever reason, the birds on Wrangel Island which are a subset of that population, that sub population at Wrangel has been doing really well the last 5, 10 years. I don’t have my finger on the pulse, so there’s some Russian researchers that have worked there. I don’t know if they’ve been there recently, but yeah, really good production. And so there are increases in the population size, I don’t know if they’ve leveled off or what, but they’re far more than there used to be, say, 20 or 30 years ago with my understanding. The midcontinent birds also increased, again, with agriculture, but we’re talking about 20 million back in the day, like, 10 years ago or so, adult midcontinent, 18 to 20 million. And you mentioned the greater snow geese in the Atlantic Flyway and I think they’re hovering right around a million after an increase through 60s, 70s, but they never really got much above a million, maybe 1.2 million, and fluctuate between 800,000 to 1.2 million. So yeah, the amount of habitat the midcontinent birds can exploit is behind how abundant they are, they have a wider range and they cover more of the agricultural zone in North America, the bread basket of North America is the midcontinent. So with the corn and barley and wheat that’s grown, especially corn and rice now in Arkansas, for example, a lot of birds are head in Arkansas all species. Whereas, there was always mallards there, but they didn’t have the geese that they do now, 30, 40 years ago.

Ramsey Russell: They’re starting to exploit that new agriculture and these warmer winters and just stick further up the flyways, sounds like. I mean, we’re talking about speckled bellies earlier, Ray, I’m here to move up in Southern Illinois.

Dr. Ray Alisauskus: Yeah, east, western Indiana, I hear you. But part of it is power plants, that’s provide open water year round plus the corn and other crops that are available year round if they’re not plowed under and warmer weather, warmer winters overall, I don’t study climate per se, not wintering ground climate, but there are other folks that that do and I think, demonstrated that it’s having an effect on where the birds winter, it’s effectively short stopping, but it’s not a managed it’s just the birds adapting to changes in agriculture and climate and other infrastructure. Like I say, like, cooling ponds from power plants, that can provide some pretty nifty habitat if you’re a goose to sit on, that’s what they like to do.

Ramsey Russell: Do the snow geese kind of run on a photo period with their migrations?

Dr. Ray Alisauskus: Sure. Yeah, the day length affects some of what they do and then it’s kind of like, they’re hardwired by how much daylight there is. For example, I think in about March the 12th when the days are longer than 12 hours, there’s more than 12 hours of sunlight and as they head north, that really speeds up and that’s when they’re going to do the reproductive organs start to really take off. And so that’s driving a lot of it. But then there’s also among individuals of what kind of feeding conditions they have that affect, how well they’ll do breeding wise. But sort of the internal machinery is driven by daylight things like that or at least some of it.

Ramsey Russell: They seem to run like clockwork coming off the Arctic down here just begin to stage and just accumulating 2 weeks ago, I guess, maybe 3 weeks ago there was a big influx of snow showing up, I mean, overnight, bam, there they are, had a north wind and then they kind of hang out and they fattened up and then, like, a bus schedule, pick up and go down, they wait on the right conditions and off they go down south.

Dr. Ray Alisauskus: Yeah. Some of that is, the other thing is the moon. I mean, personally, I’ve noticed there’s usually a big push of birth into or out of an area, like, our latitude here in Saskatchewan on a full moon. Like, what was it a week or two? 10 days ago, I guess, a week, it was a full moon, noticeably more birds, 3 days before a full moon and the numbers had built up, they’re kind of here and there. And then there’s some to trickle out, that don’t adhere to the schedule. Like I say, everyone’s different, but for a lot of the population, solar and lunar cycles, play a role in what the birds do.

Current Mid-continent Snow Goose Populations

So it went from 2 to 3 million up to about 18 million and now it’s back down to about 8 million adult midcontinent snow geese.

Ramsey Russell: How many midcontinent population of snow geese were there around the 90s when they decided, hey, we’ve got to do something to knock these back. How much did it grow to and what’s the current population?

Dr. Ray Alisauskus: I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but I’m going from memory. And, again, we talked about the mid-winter account and index, which undercounts what’s really out there. But also the other method of the Lincoln method where you have harvest and harvest rate. Like, so we have harvest estimates in Canada and US in other words, the pile of geese, how many hundreds of thousand geese are harvested? We have that estimate, then we also have the harvest rate from banding studies, if you combine those two pieces of information, you can go ahead and estimate the abundance of birds in the population. So for example, say the harvest is a million snow geese are killed in any one year, so we know that from the harvest estimates from the parts surveys and the parts collection that people send in and so on. So let’s say, as an example, a million midcontinent snow geese, if we band say a 1000 midcontinent snow geese and then a 100 of those, let’s say 50 of those are harvested, we have a harvest rate of 5% and so that million birds represent 5% of the population, if you can wrap your head around that. And so if that’s the case, that means there’s 20 million birds, it’s kind of hard to explain on a podcast, but it’s a pretty straightforward relationship. And so you can go ahead and estimate things that way and so if you use a Lincoln estimator, as I’ve just kind of given a thumbnail sketch of, going back to the 70s, there’s probably only 2 or 3 million midcontinent and snow geese and that increased fairly smoothly and it peaked out at about 18 to 20 million in about 2010. And so it had increased through that conservation order, the population continued to increase and that’s right in line with the survival rate not going down and the production of birds at the time, the new birds contributing. And so you had all these things going, still driving the population up, but now as the production got so low, you reach an inflection point where they’re not replacing the dead adults and so after about 2010, I think we’re down about 8 million birds, currently in as of 2021, I just got the banding data a couple of months ago and the harvest estimates also. So I need to update those from my own database to see what they are for 2021. There’s always a lag because we only get this data a year after the hunting season. So, I should work that up. But last I looked for midcontinent snow geese was about 8 million bird. So it went from 2 to 3 million up to about 18 million and now it’s back down to about 8 million adult midcontinent snow geese.

Ramsey Russell: When I think back in the day and times change, things change, when I shot my first snow geese, went all the way down to Texas we talked about and there was this entire industry, every zip code had the bird pickers and you stopped and they collected the feathers and sold the feathers and processed the meat and families made a living off doing this, well, that’s all gone now, a lot of roost in that part of the world are shopping centers. The geese are displaced further up into Arkansas or Missouri and since 1998 with the conservation order, I can remember and sitting around a little hotel conference table and the feds think tanking, how are we going to get folks to hunt these birds? I mean, they don’t want to eat them, there’s a lot of birds, it’s a big decoy expense, how are we going to get people to start doing this? They were just strategizing ideas to implement the conservation order. Well, now it’s implemented. I mean, there are young people and old people with trailer full of white decoys, it’s become a cultural phenomenon, from Mississippi clear up to here. We go from 2 million to 18 million, I think you said to about 8 million. Do you got a guesstimate or did your science show anything on how long this might last? How long we can continue harvesting 20 birds or unlimited harvest under a conservation order.

The Geese Run the Guns

Dr. Ray Alisauskus: Well, I think, the objective of the conservation order was to reduce the third – I can’t remember the exact number because I study the birds and try to understand what’s going on, I don’t set policy, that’s by the management agencies. But I’m going from memory, but there was a certain percentage of the population, once it has achieved that level, then the conservation order will have done its job, even though it doesn’t seem to be of working the way it was intended in terms of reducing adult survival. But I will say this, I agree with you that the whole industry has arisen out of a conservation order in terms of spring harvest, for example, right now, I mentioned those band recoveries that we band bird, so we get a pretty good idea of how many birds are killed during the “regular season versus the conservation order” just by the distribution of bands on the dates that they’re shot within a year. And so now, about probably 60% of the adult snow geese that are shot are shot during the conservation order, the regular season harvest is actually going down and the conservation order harvest is also as well, but as a percentage, most birds are now shot during the conservation order down south and most of that, probably 90%, 95% of that happens in the US, there’s some bird shot in Canada during the spring seasons here, I mean, what else can you hunt for waterfowl in the spring, right? And so yeah, the decoys investments have been made and people exploit that opportunity. How long it’s going to last? I don’t know. At some point, if the population continues to decline, even though it’s not caused by the conservation order, once the population reaches a certain level, you’d think that, the conditions of the conservation order might change, there’s several options, I mean, you could shut it down, you could implement bag limits to keep it going, so it’s “manageable” I keep saying quote unquote because those are words used by other folks, not necessarily me or you can keep going the way it is. And the birds, they adjust their behavior as well. I mean, reason that there’s only 3% harvest rate on adults currently, 3% to 4% maybe harvest rate is because the birds are they get wearier and they get smarter and they’re not as easily killable. I mean, still good numbers get killed, but as a proportion, that’s not going up. And so the total numbers are getting killed or declining as the population declines. So I don’t know personally, I think, in the case of midcontinent snow geese, when there’s lots of birds, you kill lots, when there’s not, you don’t. And so in this case, I think the geese run the guns, not the other way around.

Snow Goose Hunting: Sky Carp?

 But ultimately, it’s a great eating bird, especially around here. 

Ramsey Russell: Good point. Ray, another evolution I’ve seen happen in terms of regard of snow geese is, I used to hear a lot, not so much now, but sky carp, this term sky carp. It’s like, as snow goose hunting became mainstream and hunters jumped into it to save the tundra, there was just such an abundance of them back during that hay day that top that maybe they weren’t giving the due respect, they were called sky carp. And because those birds originated in marsh talking to historians, the market hunters didn’t really prefer them because they were ranked marsh birds, but they’ve since evolved into agriculture like we talked about. Earlier, you were talking about, up here in the prairie they are staging, they begin to accumulate fat, down on the wintering grounds, they focus on protein needs and not scientifically, but just as somebody that’s breasted a whole lot of snow geese appearing in Canada, I see more of a square shaped breast just full and lighter colored and down in Arkansas, Mississippi more of a triangular shape, very sharp keel and darker meat, I can see that. And to the term sky carp I despise it because number one, I think they’re a very noble game bird, they’re hunted from the Arctic down to the Gulf Coast and clear back and yet they persist, they’re very adaptable.

Dr. Ray Alisauskus: Yeah, they’re winning.

Ramsey Russell: Yeah. They’re winning

Dr. Ray Alisauskus: In a way.

Ramsey Russell: But as table fare, I’ve come to regard them as probably one of my favorite waterfowl to eat, especially in the goose world. I love them.

Dr. Ray Alisauskus: Yeah. Well, I’m not going to argue with you. I mean, I like ross goose too –

Ramsey Russell: Well, that’s kind of the same, I will be honest.

Dr. Ray Alisauskus: I’ve never had a bad or a tough ross goose. The snow goose that’s a little could be a bit chewy, but generally what you say is true though, I agree with it a 100%, I mean, they’re nice and fat and If I can, I try to pluck them and roast them whole on a weber or something like that, little hickory smoke or whatever. And that’s my favorite for any kind of goose. But yeah, there’s a lot options are open, but yeah, they definitely don’t taste like fish, so I don’t know where the sky carp comes from. And like you, I don’t subscribe to that view. But ultimately, it’s a great eating bird, especially around here. I’m talking to Hank Shaw, I don’t know if you know him, we talked a couple 3, 4 years ago, whatever it was and a lot of his birds were California and so it’s the same thing, Pacific flyway, but on the wintering grounds. So they don’t have that fat, quite like the birds up here do or similar to Louisiana or Texas or even Arkansas, that razor keel is that’s part of the wintering grounds because they don’t need to store that protein before they need to do it. And then they do when it’s about to start migrating north, but just to sort of persist, the musculature isn’t as large as it is here, they’re getting ready to fly south and they need that fuel so they’re fattening up and they just flew from the Arctic to Saskatchewan. So they’ve had sort of exercise, right, use, disuse, whenever you use muscles, they grow, especially if you can feed them, so that’s the state that they’re in here in the northern Prairie provinces and through the Dakotas probably. But, yes, as they get down south, those fat reserves diminish and probably not as good at eating a bird, you might want to make jerky out of them and that kind of thing, I mean, they’re good to make-

Ramsey Russell: Jerky, sausage, gumbo.

Dr. Ray Alisauskus: You name it, you bet.

Ramsey Russell: I’ve even taken just the filet breast and ground it, put a little bacon ends in it at the butcher and boom, have bacon burgers and it’s delicious.

Dr. Ray Alisauskus: Yeah, let’s go.

Ramsey Russell: Tell me again your favorite recipe, is that the whole pick snow goose?

Dr. Ray Alisauskus: Yeah, that would be it and nothing fancy. Well, I mean, other than plucking the bird, if you get a nice bird without too many pin feathers, it’s probably 5, 10 minute job and after the hunt, you kind of wind down and just look around and out in a nice sunny spot and pluck your birds and then gut them and so on, clean them up, I usually let them sit for a few days, even a week or more in the fridge. And sometimes I’ll brine them, not always, sometimes usually I’ll do nothing. And then, get the old kettle cooker out and put two piles of charcoal on each side and just put the bird in the middle of that or however many birds you could fit in the middle of that.

Ramsey Russell: Are you cooking it low and slow kind of like smoking?

Dr. Ray Alisauskus: No, hot and fast.

Ramsey Russell: Okay.

Dr. Ray Alisauskus: Yeah. And so it’s like medium rare or even rare in the middle when you cut through that breast, but the skin is all crispy. So anyway, that’s my thing that a bunch of my friends, colleagues enjoy them that way, Jim, for example, but I think the guy that taught us out was Dave Angney with ducks and canvasbacks and but it works for anything, any kind of waterfowl.

Ramsey Russell: Keep it simple.

Dr. Ray Alisauskus: Yeah. But if you want to complicate it, like I say, add a little hickory smoke on there and some salt and maybe a little red wine to go with it. So, yeah.

Ramsey Russell: Ray, I sure appreciate your time, I know you’re very busy. Folks, you all been listening to Ray Alisauskus with the Wildlife Research Environment, Canada, Science and Technology with Canada. Thank you very much, Ray.

Dr. Ray Alisauskus: You’re welcome Ramsey, it’s nice to meet you.

Ramsey Russell: Yeah. Folks, thank you all for listening to this episode of Ducks Season Somewhere, we’ll see you next time.

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