Everything We Thought We Knew About Snow Geese Was Wrong
Hunters have been shooting spring snow geese for 20 years per waterfowl managers, but light geese populations continue to rise. The Outdoor Life Podcast investigates why this is happening
When the spring snow goose conservation order began in 1999, biologists miscalculated the number of mid-content snows by at least 5 million birds. At the time, it was thought that there were 3 million lesser snow geese in the population, which migrates through the Mississippi and Central flyways. The number was more like 8 million—biologists estimate there are around 10 million adults in the mid-content population today, down from an all-time high of 16 to 18 million in 2013.
At the time, waterfowl managers figured that if hunters could kill enough adult mid-continent light geese, there was a good chance of preserving the birds’ nesting habitat in the Canadian Arctic. But even though we’ve been hunting light geese in the spring with electronic callers, unplugged shotguns, and massive decoy spreads for more than 20 years, the population of mid-continent snows has not declined to the point waterfowl mangers anticipated.
And despite the predictions that the birds would destroy the tundra (and thus themselves), it seems snows aren’t actually eating themselves into extinction. They’ve adapted to find different wintering grounds. They migrate around the most pressured hunting areas, and they are even cropping up in new nesting areas where they’ve never been seen before.
It turns out, there was plenty that hunters, researchers, and wildlife managers didn’t know about greater snow geese, lesser snows, and Ross’s geese—and still don’t. In fact, we’re just starting to ask the right questions, like: Why are snow geese expanding their range? Is the continued growth going to hurt other waterfowl species? Is the conservation season failing? And what does the future hold for snows and snow goose hunting? Here’s what we know so far.
The Spring Conservation Order Didn’t Really Work
The initial goal of the spring conservation order was to reduce light goose populations by half over a 10-year period. But because the mid-continent population had swelled (unbeknown to researchers) to more than 8 million by the late 1990s, it never had a chance to curtail overall light goose numbers—there were simply too many adult birds from the start.
“The [estimated] total number of birds in the mid-continent population was way off when the order went into practice,” says Ducks Unlimited biologist Dr. Mark Petrie. “The population was thought to be around 3 million based on winter surveys. The thing about these surveys, especially with snow geese, is they are hard to conduct. It’s tough to count massive flocks. Using new intel [of Lincoln estimates], we discovered the population was more like 8 million birds and could have been as high, at one point, as 20 million.”
But that doesn’t mean the order hasn’t served a purpose. The continental harvest of snow geese has doubled since the advent of the conservation order, according to the USFWS.
Adult snow geese do all the breeding, so they are the birds that need to be killed in order to decrease the population. Shooting juvenile birds only helps flatten goose numbers. Hunters quickly found out that adults were much more difficult to kill than juvies. You might suspect that the first spring snow goose seasons yielded the highest totals of birds killed because the snows had not been used to being hunted on their return flight north. But that was not the case. According to USFWS data, 643,470 snows and Ross’s geese were killed in the first spring conservation order by 75,727 Canadian and U.S. hunters in the Mississippi and Central flyways.
The number of birds killed has increased almost every spring since that initial hunt in 1999. According to USFWS reports, since 2013-14, no fewer than 1 million birds have been killed. More than 2 million were shot in 2014-15 and again in 2017-18 by less than 50,000 hunters. By the 2019-2020 season, participation dipped to fewer than 42,000 snow goose hunters. Essentially, the trend is that fewer snow goose hunters who hunt more often and kill more geese. However, the number of total days afield is still down overall.
Even though harvest rates are up, it hasn’t put a big enough dent in the mid-content flyway population. In fact, according to USFWS mid-winter surveys, the overall numbers have either stayed the same or increased since 1999, though some waterfowl managers challenge that conclusion.
“Before the conservation order was put in place, it was estimated hunters harvested about 2.5 percent of all adult lesser snow geese, or one in 40 adults per year,” Petrie says. “Currently, we estimate that harvest rates of adult birds have increased, but only to about one in every 37 adults. That’s not going to do the job.”
Conversely, the Atlantic Flyway population of greater snow geese—700,000 birds—has been stabilized because the population was much smaller (about 1 million geese) when the spring conservation order was enacted. According to a Ducks Unlimited report, about 100,000 adult greaters were killed by hunters in 1999. That reduced the survival rate of adults from 83 percent to 72 percent, which was key in controlling snow goose numbers.
The DU report says the number of spring hunters in the Atlantic Flyway has decreased by 50 percent since the start of the conservation order, causing a decrease in the number of birds killed, which could allow the greater snow goose populations to rise again.
“None of our management actions have really done much, except on greater snow geese,” says Chris Nicolai, a waterfowl scientist with Delta Waterfowl. “Greaters plateaued about 15 years ago. The extra harvest opportunity eventually succeeded at a much higher level than we wanted, but at least it succeeded. Everything in the other three flyways, guns aren’t doing one damn thing [to decrease populations].”
Snows Have Abandoned the Texas Coast
In the late 1980s and 90s, the Texas Gulf Coast was the destination for lesser snow geese to spend the winter. Small towns dotted along the state’s prairie coastal region hosted an influx of hunters and goose guides who came to Texas to hunt massive flocks of snows over white rags, socks, and shell decoys. At the time, the coastal prairie held the largest wintering population of lesser snow geese in the U.S.—waterfowl managers estimated the number at more than 1 million birds.
Snow geese mobbed this region to feast on waste grains from rice farming operations, which were booming at the time. Outfitters leveed fields and strategically flooded rice fields under natural snow goose flight paths, providing roost waters for the birds to refuge on. They would then lease the cut rice fields surrounding these man-made roosts to hunt the geese in.
Today, the giant flights of snow geese have all but disappeared from the Texas coastal prairie (however, the area is benefitting from outstanding duck hunting). A 2020 survey compiled by Texas Parks and Wildlife revealed that just 325,589 light geese were counted along the state’s four coastal zones. That number was down drastically from the all-time high of 1,093,972 birds in 1996.
Oddly, Texas has decreased the bag limit on snow geese during the regular season from 20 to 10, a decision confounding to both biologists and hunters.
“Texas is the only state doing that. They are also trying to improve snow goose roost habitat,” says Nicolai “Yes, fewer snow geese are wintering on the Texas coast, but as a whole the mid-continent snows are overpopulated. There’s no reason to decrease the bag limit on them. They are trying to reduce harvest to impact survival, when it’s been proven 30 times over that harvest has zero impact on survival.”
The reason for the snow geese no longer wintering in Texas is fairly simple: rice production has decreased. The amount of access farmers have to fresh water became severely limited and made growing rice on a large scale impossible.
A majority of the Texas birds have shifted their wintering grounds east to states like Louisiana, Arkansas, and Mississippi.
“Texas does not have near the numbers of snow geese they had back in the 1990s,” says Josh Dooley, a USFWS wildlife biologist and co-chair of the Arctic Goose Joint Venture. “We are seeing snows move further east, but also staying further north. Through Lincoln Index estimates [a mathematical formula that uses birds estimates and band data to determine populations], we have actually seen Ross’s geese and mid-content snow geese populations stabilize, not increase.”
Snows Actually Aren’t Eating Themselves to Extinction
When the spring conservation order was passed, biologists were concerned that the geese were destroying tundra habitat in arctic Canada and catastrophe loomed. Spring staging grounds like the costal salt marshes of James Bay and Hudson Bay saw a lot of that habitat degradation.
In the 1990s, biologists worried that snows would decimate these coastal marshes and that the destruction would continue throughout the Canadian tundra. But what they didn’t yet realize was that snow geese were flying even further north into the Canadian arctic, spreading out to breed in smaller colonies. That still caused habitat loss, but it was much smaller.
“The original worry was that nesting snow geese were tearing up areas of the Arctic—that the trend would continue in other areas of the Arctic,” Nicolai says. “However, what was discovered is that the vast majority of the habitat damage was from spring staging light geese. Once those large concentrations moved off these northern coastal areas and dispersed to their breeding grounds, the damage to those breeding grounds was minimal.”
Greater snow geese continue to breed in colonies on the vegetated hilltops and dry westward slopes of the Foxe Basin north of Hudson Bay, northern Baffin Island, Bylot, Axel Heiberg, Ellesmere Island in Nunavat, and Greenland. They trickle down the flyway, stopping in southern Quebec, and then spend most of the winter in the northeast U.S. and will fly as far south as North Carolina.
The reason for the greater snow goose population boom was improved habitat. According to a study by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, after the U.S. developed 12 national wildlife refuges from 1934 to 1967, greaters flourished. At the start of the 20th century there were only 3,000 birds. By the 1990s, more than 1 million adult snow geese were on the breeding grounds.
Mid-content snows nest on the grassy tundra plains, along shallow rivers near coastal areas, and inland lakes if they breed on an island, like Baffin (Nunavut) or Banks Island (Northwest Territories). Mid-continent snows also spend the summer on Queen Maud Gulf, Victoria Island, and Hudson Bay. The mid-content population trickles south through the Mississippi and Central flyways, and many of the birds will eventually end up in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley.
Their migration routes have continued to expand east and west in the last 10 to 15 years. For instance, according to USFWS mid-winter surveys, the average number of snows from 2011 to 2015 in Illinois was 83,792. From 2016 to 2020 it jumped to 213,652. Arkansas (1,150,927), Louisiana (434,239), and Missouri (490,091) have the highest current averages of wintering snows in the Mississippi flyaway. Also, in 1970 it was estimated that there were 424,625 mid-content snow geese in the Mississippi Flyway. Now, that number is up to 2.9 million and has surged as high as 3.5 million.
In the Central Flyway, Kansas has supplanted Texas for holding the highest number of wintering snows from 2016 to 2020. Almost 800,000 mid-content snow geese spend the winter there, as opposed to an average of 303,067 in Texas. On average, there are more snows (3.85 million) in the Central Flyway than the Mississippi.
“We have definitely seen a distributional shift of mid-content snows from the Texas coast to the east and the north,” Dooley says. “They are showing up in areas like Illinois and Indiana, places we haven’t seen them before. It’s kind of hard to tease out what is causing this distributional change, because the mid-content population is stabilizing, it’s not growing. But certainly, you can point to shifts in agriculture and even climate.”
Snow Geese Are Breeding in New Areas and Growing in the Pacific Flyway
When the spring conservation order was passed and implemented in 1999, the Pacific Flyway was left out because light goose numbers were low. Well, since then, Pacific Flyway geese have increased exponentially with birds breeding on Wrangel Island (Russia) and Western Arctic birds that breed from Banks Island (part of the Northwest Territories) to the north slope of Alaska. They went from virtually none to 2.5 million birds strong. Alaska’s northern slope has gone from zero nests in the 1990s to 50,000 nests, according to Nicolai. There are likely similar population explosions in the mid-content, biologists just haven’t found them yet.
“Wrangel Island was down to like 10,000 nests five years ago, and this past year they were at 600,000,” says Nicolai, noting that some of the nests belong to other species of waterfowl, not all snow geese. “Wrangel Island has absolutely exploded in the last four years.”
In the other three flyways, snows have the options of trickling their way to the wintering grounds, but many of the Wrangel Island and Western Arctic birds move from the breeding grounds to their winter homes—California’s Central Valley—all at once in a single massive migration. Some of those birds will stop in Oregon, Washington, or go south to Mexico, but a vast majority of the population (over 1 million birds) stays in California.
“The Pacific Flyway is a lot different than the other three flyways,” Nicolai says. “Basically, when that freeze hits up north, they pack up their bags and fly all the way to their wintering grounds.
“There’s no continuous habitat for these Pacific Flyway geese. A mallard can migrate from northern Alberta to Louisiana 10 miles at time. Take a drink, fatten up. But when those Pacific Flyway birds move, it’s a big, huge movement.”
The Pacific Flyway council has requested that the USFWS consider amending National Environmental Policy Act documents for light goose management in their flyway. But it’s not a simple process. If the USFWS wanted to make a play for a spring conservation order in the Pacific Flyway (you can hunt geese into March there, just not with e-callers and unplugged shotguns) the entire order would have to go through the legal process again. And the spring hunt would most certainly come under scrutiny. The Humane Society actually sued the USFWS over the conservation order in the 1990s, and there is a fear that the order could be augmented in a way that would not benefit the birds, hunters, or habitat. So far, the USFWS has recommended increased bag limits for the Pacific Flyway during the regular goose season.
“To make any modifications to (the snow goose order) you have to re-open that process,” Nicolai says. “It becomes open to public scrutiny, public comments, etc. And they are really nervous about going through that whole process to include the Pacific Flyway.”
Booming Goose Populations Could Hurt Other Waterfowl
These days, many hunters and wildlife biologists are wondering if the large numbers of light geese are having a negative impact on other waterfowl. Luke Mathews, now a wildlife programs manager for the California Rice Commission, studied and wrote his master’s thesis on rice and corn waste grains and waterfowl in California’s Central Valley.
Wintering goose numbers have boomed in the Central Valley over the last decade from 1.1 million birds to 2.3 million (Canadas and white-fronts are included with snows). Most geese arrive there before ducks. White-fronts (specklebellies) are there by late August and snows are just a few weeks behind them, migrating from Wrangel Island, the Canadian Arctic, and Alaska. According to a DU report, there are now enough geese in the Valley to eat every grain of rice that remains after the harvest. Of course, they can’t because ducks eventually migrate in and the snows, Ross’s, specks, and Canadas must share the wealth.
In his thesis, Mathews estimated that post-harvest, each acre of a rice field in the Central Valley has 290 pounds of waste grain left. But since ducks don’t typically feed in dry rice fields—they wait till the fields are flooded—the geese feast for about a month until the water pumps are turned on. By then, Mathews estimates that there are only 132 pounds of rice per acre.
“If goose populations continue to grow and we continue to get more geese in the Central Valley, it could become a serious issue for ducks,” Petrie says. “The competition for food sources is something to keep an eye on.”
DU biologist Ethan Massey conducted a similar study in Arkansas while he was a graduate student at the University of Arkansas-Monticello. He reached a similar conclusion: Geese are arriving on the southern prairie before ducks and gobbling up the waste grains.
“Early-migrating white-fronts consume substantial amounts of rice grain in both flooded and dry rice fields in October,” Massey says. “Dry fields are considered unavailable to ducks, but they may be flooded for duck habitat later in the wintering period. However, early-arriving Arctic geese may have already depleted these fields prior to flooding.”
At this point, there’s no conclusive data that arctic geese are hurting duck populations. But consider that 50 percent of the dabbling ducks in the U.S. winter in three places—California’s Central Valley, the Gulf Coast, and the Mississippi Alluvial Valley. Two of those locations—the Central Valley and Mississippi Alluvial Valley—are major wintering areas for snows and specks as well. So, if those goose populations continue to grow, ducks will at least see some competition over food.
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Snow Goose Hunters See Changes in the Field
Scientific data doesn’t always line up with what hunters are actually seeing in the field. That’s not to say biologists are inaccurate, but the folks who hunt these birds day-in and day-out, are just as tapped into how snow geese are evolving. Plus, biologists are trying to monitor millions of birds that are flying thousands of miles up and down the flyways—it’s a tough job, which is why state and federal agencies ask hunters for their harvest and band data.
Milton Newberry and Dusty Brown are two of the most well-traveled snow goose hunters in the country. Newberry has hunted the Central and Mississippi flyways extensively. Brown has done the same, but has also guided spring snow goose hunts in Saskatchewan for several seasons, plus he lives in Oregon and hunts snows there each spring.
In recent years, snow geese have been arriving in Arkansas in big numbers as early as late September, and the state has modified its season so that you can hunt snows in October.
Arkansas has become ground zero for every hunter with a trailer full of snow goose socks. The unrelenting pressure has made hunting snows on their wintering grounds much more difficult.
“When I first started hunting snows in 2000, if you had any kind of spread out, socks or full-bodies, they were going to come take look at you,” Newberry says. “It’s not that way anymore.”
Hunting adult snow geese is unlike any other hunting pursuit. Thanks to band data, we know that some of these birds are more than 20 years old, which makes them incredibly wary during their migration north. Imagine trying to hunt a spring turkey that has lived through 20 seasons of hunting pressure.
“When we are in Arkansas, we are mostly hunting feeds, over a couple hundred decoys,” Newberry says. “Most of the time if you scout them hard and get on the X they will comeback, so you don’t need those massive rigs.
“But that all changes once the birds start heading back north. You are hunting migratory flyways and trying to get under birds, and entice them into the spread. It’s an entirely different deal, because the adults have seen this game plenty of times. You can hardly kill them. And once they get out of Arkansas you just hope to hell you time the migration right. They are a different bird once they leave.”
What Newberry means is that while birds are in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana they are on their wintering grounds, which makes them more predictable. But once birds start trickling back north. They become much more unpredictable, because they are trying to return to the breeding grounds as quick as possible. So, hunting feeds becomes much more difficult, and that’s why many outfitters set massive decoy spreads on traditional flight paths.
“By the time the migration starts these birds get in super groups, and will go where they want to,” Newberry says. “Some days, no matter how big of a spread you set, they just aren’t going to stop. They are going where they want to.”
That ball game changes once the snows cross the border into Canada. Not a lot of hunters pursue spring snows in the north country. So snows are actually much easier to kill once they arrive on the prairie. They begin to break up into smaller colonization groups, and act more like Canada geese, flying lower coming off the roost and decoying in smaller numbers.
“They act more like honkers up there, flying from roost to feed,” Brown says. “They don’t blow up in the air two miles high, line out, and go somewhere, never to be seen again.”
However, even in Canada, snows can congregate in massive flocks.
“When they are in these massive groups, it’s impossible to hunt them, and I don’t bother setting up on those birds,” Brown says. “We are actually looking for manageable feeds. Maybe a few thousand geese that are coming in multiple waves.”
Snows are hell bent on fattening up before they make it to the breeding grounds. They are two to three pounds heavier than normal, bulking up for the remainder of their northern flight. And if you have hunted waterfowl when they are hungry, you know how much easier it is to kill them. It’s an oddity, but shooting snow geese in May on the Canadian prairie is one of the most predictable waterfowl hunts of all time.
“If you have never been to Canada in the spring, you would not even recognize these birds,” Brown says. “They are so hell bent on feeding their fat leaks out of the BB holes after we shoot them… It’s an experience unlike any other. If you are a duck hunter and have never done it, add it to your list.”
Jace Bauserman contributed to this report.