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The goose conundrum 

How many is too many? How few is not enough?

click to enlarge Dominic Bachman. Photo by Heidi Walters.
  • Dominic Bachman. Photo by Heidi Walters.

Hear that gabbling in the sky, that high rambunctious cry as if an entire city of laughing children is flying over? Or see that shifting V-tipped string of black stretched south to north? And another and another?

Early in the morning, we stop what we're doing to watch banner after noisy banner of Aleutian geese float past. Mid-day, and there they are again. And as one group slowly spirals like a swarm of giant, convivial locusts to land, the dairy farmer thinks, there goes my field. And the public servant thinks, how many now? And the scientist thinks, what to do? And the hunter thinks, I'm doing a good thing, plus I've got a deep-freeze full this time, maybe more next year. The ordinary citizen, meanwhile, looks up in admiration and wonder and says, aren't there more this year?

For weeks, now, this goose consciousness has pervaded our lives and altered our habits as the Aleutians make their way from their winter feeding grounds in the Central Valley toward their summer breeding grounds in the Aleutian islands, stopping in Humboldt's green pastures along the way to gorge on grass until they're fat enough to endure the 2,000-mile journey and still be fit enough to breed once they get there. Weekend before last, about 700 people made their way to the Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge, many arriving in a dark spotlit by a pearlish round moon sinking into the bay. There, they watched the Aleutians lift in great crowds from their roosting grounds with a sound like a cheering stadium, fly a short span, land, then lift off again. As dawn cut a pink gash along the ridgetops and the light spread, an occasional sharp kapow sounded from the perimeters, where hunters aimed from private pastures, partaking in an extended Aleutian goose season. Amid the rising and falling calls of the Aleutians also came outbursts of cranky, lower-pitched honks from their big relatives, a couple thousand resident Canada geese (imported in the 1990s from Reno) who this time of year are beginning to nest.

Then, last Thursday, students and professors filled Room 258 inside the Wildlife building at Humboldt State University - a room lined with a perpetual conscience, a diversity of mounted ungulate heads whose big eyes seemed to say, ironically, we rely on you people - to hear a progress report on the Aleutian geese from graduate students Dominic Bachman and Kyle Spragens.

First, yes, there are more than ever this year. "This is a story I like to tell," said Bachman, pointing at a graph charting the rise of the Aleutian goose, which is a subspecies of Canada goose. "In 1975, there were 790 individuals. In 2007, there are well over 100,000."

It's considered one of the rare, great success stories. The goose was thought to be extinct at one point, decimated by foxes introduced to their breeding islands by Russian fur trappers in the 1700s. Between 1938 and 1962, nary an Aleutian was seen, according to the scientific lore. But then a small group was found on one of the islands, and scientists began removing foxes and reintroducing the Aleutians back to other islands. The goose was listed as endangered in 1967, and hunting it was forbidden. By 2001 there were nearly 40,000 Aleutian geese, and the species was removed from the endangered species list. The next year, it was OK to hunt them. Every year since, the Aleutian goose population has soared, and each year the hunting season has been extended.

Spragens said a previous researcher documented how, at first, most of these Aleutians stopped in Del Norte County's cow pastures for their spring staging. (Crescent City even started a festival to celebrate their return.) Eventually Del Norte ranchers had had enough, and they started hazing and heckling the geese, who were eating all their cows' grass. This caused many Aleutians to shift their spring staging area to Humboldt County. Now, 80 percent of the population stages in the Humboldt Bay area, and now, said Spragens, "there's too much goose use on private lands."

Spragens has studied farms in the Arcata Bottoms, and has noted what he calls the "Aleutian goose effect." "Many of the cattle ranchers are using this rotational system," he said. They'll put their cows in one field, he said, then move them on to another, and another. Meanwhile, the first-grazed fields have time to grow back. It's called grass banking. But these days, hordes of Aleutians fly in and eat the bank. They like cow-grazed grass. "They keep the grass at short length, and so they throw the whole thing off" for the rancher.

Bachman has been conducting experiments out at the Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge, putting cows on some patches, growing clover in others and fertilizer yet others. He has found that while geese loved the clover he planted, they fell hardest for patches that were fertilized and grazed.

Spragens' and Bachmans' results are preliminary because their studies aren't over. But eventually, perhaps their research could help people manage the geese. "If the private landowners are trying to get rid of them, there has to be an understanding of what the goose wants," said Spragens. And one idea being experimented with is shooing the geese onto "alternative feeding areas" - a practice used to some success in Europe.

This can be done in a "push-pull" manner, explained HSU Professor Matt Johnson the next day, in his office. For instance, the extended portion of the hunting season this year, conducted only on private land, was intended to scare (push) the geese onto public lands - it wasn't expected to alter their actual numbers significantly. But the public land, in turn, must hold the nutritious, cow-chewed grass the geese are looking for - that's the "pull" part of the equation. But even if the push-pull mechanisms were worked out, and even if every scrap of public land were converted to cow-chewed grassy goodness, there remains a problem: There isn't enough public land in the county to accommodate all the geese, which means some private landowners would have to step up and offer their lands for the geese in exchange, perhaps, for a financial incentive.

And underlying the technical details to be sorted out lies a more pressing problem, one for our collective conscience to ponder. For the past four years, Johnson has conducted research on a 250-acre plot of land on the state-managed wildlife area at Mad River Slough. Its tall, dead grass had not been grazed for 15 years. It had become mouse and vole "heaven," said Johnson. "And that in turn attracted a lot of raptors." In 2003, they put cows on the land. "The mice and voles, after about four months of grazing, their numbers basically plummeted. And they haven't come back." Of the four species of raptors monitored on the site, the populations of two - the white-tailed kite and the short-eared owl, both species of "special concern" - also dropped dramatically. Aleutian geese, meanwhile, are beginning to drop in.

"So, I like to tell people, grass management both enhances and degrades habitat for wildlife," said Johnson. "You do something that's good for the short-grass species, and it's probably not going to be good for the long-grass species. I think the farmers believe Fish and Game should manage all public lands for geese. But they can't focus so myopically on geese - and society shouldn't let them, either. There has to be a balance."

The ultimate solution, said Johnson, will have to include not only a distribution strategy, but also putting a cap on the Aleutian goose numbers. The Pacific Flyway Council did actually suggest a cap of 60,000 - but, clearly, the geese have overshot that amiable goal. "They're basically increasing exponentially," said Johnson. "There will be some natural carrying capacity, a ceiling, but that ceiling could be 800,000. We don't know."

What we do know is that, at least ever since the Russian fur traders, it's been people who've manipulated the Aleutian goose, indirectly and directly. We've pushed it to the brink, then pulled it back with resounding success, and we'll probably be tinkering with its numbers from here on out.

"It's going to be difficult in the future," said HSU Professor Emeritus Paul "Doc" Springer. He says that with more weight than you might realize: Springer, who worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for 36 years, was a lead biologist in the Aleutian goose recovery effort back in the early 1970s. One of his students was the first to note the return of an Aleutian to Lake Earl, in Del Norte County. Springer's work helped the geese limp, then surge, back from near-extinction.

"It is a real success story, and a lot of people are real happy about it," he said, sitting at the dining room table in his house in Arcata. But then, thinking of the ranchers, he added with a laugh: "I just kind of duck when they say `I did it.' We kind of oversucceeded, I guess."

One can imagine Springer lies awake at night, listening to the geese fly overhead, with a smile on his lips and a worried furrow in his brow.

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About The Author

Heidi Walters

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Heidi Walters has been a staff writer with the North Coast Journal since 2005.

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