Hunting Michigan Geese

Hunting Michigan Geese

There may be some changes lurking on the horizon for our state's waterfowlers, but your timing remains the key to success.

Photo by Lee Leschper

Believe it or not, there was a time when seeing a Canada goose in Michigan was somewhat of a rarity. I remember growing up back in the 1960s when shooting a Canada goose was almost like shooting an elk in Michigan these days. I recall my Dad coming home from a hunting trip one time with a big Canada goose. None of us had actually seen a big honker up close and personal. We marveled at the heft of the bird and the massive wingspan. We loaded the giant bird in a wagon and carted it all over the neighborhood for a couple of days to show it off before we decided we had better clean it.

Today, Canada geese seem to be as common as robins. Burgeoning numbers of resident giant Canada geese have provided Michigan waterfowlers with exceptional hunting opportunities over the past two decades. As resident goose populations exploded, wildlife managers sought ways to control their numbers with special seasons and liberal bag limits. The tactics have done their job. Even though there are numerous urban and suburban areas where there are still way too many geese, the population of resident giant Canada geese has now stabilized or even declined in many parts of our state, and hunters could be looking at more restrictive regulations in coming years.

Michigan also sees a large influx of migrating interior Canada geese from the Mississippi Valley Population (MVP) and Southern James Bay Population (SJBP) and smaller numbers of lesser Canadas from the Tall Grass Prairie Population (TGPP). Geese do not recognize state lines. As a result, Michigan wildlife managers have been faced with the challenge over the last two decades of managing a giant Canada goose population that has exceeded numerical goals, migratory goose populations that make up a substantial portion of the Michigan harvest but whose populations are in a state of flux, and the desire to maximize hunting opportunities. The result is a complicated puzzle.

Canada goose populations and management programs have undergone tremendous changes over the past few decades. During the 1960s, management focused on the three distinct populations of interior Canadas at large refuges where the geese congregated in the fall and winter.

The first mid-December survey conducted in 1969 estimated the Mississippi Flyway's Canada goose population at 600,000 birds. Giant Canada geese comprised less than 10 percent of the population at that time and the small race of Canadas made up an even smaller proportion. Flyway-wide harvest estimates during the 1960s averaged about 145,000 geese. While hunter numbers declined by 60 percent between 1975 and 2000, the goose harvest increased to some 900,000 birds in 2000. The Canadian harvest increased by 30 percent during the same time frame.

By 2002, flyway estimates suggested a pre-nesting population of about 2.4 million Canada geese in the Mississippi Flyway, about half of which were now giant Canada geese. While numbers of Canada geese continued to increase in the south, the proportion of interior Canada geese wintering there continued to decline.

It became increasingly apparent that the overlap between wintering interior and giant Canadas required some changes in population estimating techniques and management schemes. Rather than look at populations during the fall at refuges where major migration concentrations occurred, managers shifted their focus during the late 1980s to the breeding grounds where populations geographically segregated and where more accurate population estimates could be made. By this time, giant Canada geese now comprised the bulk of the goose harvest in most states, and management goals shifted to increasing the kill of local giant Canadas while controlling the harvest of interior populations.

Michigan has enjoyed exceptional goose hunting over the past two decades thanks in large part to its burgeoning giant Canada goose population, but that could be changing.

"Michigan's giant Canada goose population peaked in 1999 at about 325,000 birds," said Department of Natural Resources biologist Dave Luukkonen out of the Rose Lake Wildlife Research Center. "The 2004 estimates placed Michigan's local giant Canada goose population at around 165,000 birds. So we're a little below our population goal of between 175,000 and 225,000 birds."

Michigan's goose kill reached an all-time high in 2003 at 192,000 geese. Due to a reduced season length in 2004, that number was much lower last season. Typically, 70 to 80 percent of the harvest is made up of giant Canada geese, 15 to 20 percent come from the MVP flock, 3 to 7 percent from the SJBP, and the balance are lesser Canadas. Of the local giant Canada geese harvest in Michigan, approximately 2,000 to 10,000 birds are bagged during the late January season. Another 50,000 geese are taken during the special early seasons in September.

Because Michigan's giant Canada goose population has dipped below the population goal, there may be some changes lurking on the horizon.

"It's quite likely that we're going to see some changes in harvest within the local population," suggested Luukkonen. "There has been some discussion of reducing the bag limit from five to three birds during the early season."

Changes in the focus of Michigan goose harvest from migratory geese to the local giants that began in 1998 apparently have done its job. Prior to that time, Michigan's giant Canada goose population was increasing at a 14 percent annual rate. With the population now declining, wildlife managers are now looking at ways of stabilizing the population. "Hunting is not the only solution to controlling goose numbers," said Luukkonen.

The harvest of migratory geese in the MVP flock is based on the number of birds migrating through each state and harvest data. Typically, Illinois and Wisconsin are each allotted approximately 32 percent of the total allowable harvest and Michigan gets between 12 to 15 percent.

"Michigan was harvesting more than our quota in the mid-1990s, but not now," said Luukkonen. "In years past, Michigan has had a bigger portion of the MVP population than actually recognized."

One factor used in setting harvest quotas is banding indices. Harvest quotas are set, in part, by calculating the number of birds banded versus the number of bands recovered from certain locations. The problem is that banding within sub-populations or regions where geese use distinct or narrow migration corridors can greatly distort the results. The USFWS has tried to shift banding locations in recent years to the south coast of Hudson Bay to give wildlife managers a more accurate reflection of actual kill. In recent years, biologists have come to rely more on breeding bi

rd estimates, rather than on band recovery rates, to estimate populations and set harvest goals. The spring of 2004 produced the latest hatch ' June 28 ' ever recorded on the Canadian breeding grounds. The late hatch resulted in poor nesting success, few young birds in the fall flight and reduced season lengths to limit harvest. Hence, the 30-day regular goose season last year.

As Michigan's population of giant Canada geese exploded over the past few decades, other factors were found to further complicate estimating the migratory goose population and predicting harvest.

"Breeder estimates have been skewed in the past by the influx of molt migrants," said Luukkonen.

Molt migrants are local giant Canada geese that are unsuccessful breeders or immature birds that migrate during May and June to the area around Hudson Bay where migratory geese in the MVP flock typically breed. As this segment of the population has grown, it would be very easy to include these birds in the overall population estimate of MVP breeders. Biologists are now very careful to make population estimates before the molt migrants arrive on the breeding grounds. These molt migrants leave the breeding grounds in mid-September in advance of the MVP birds and provide a secondary peak in hunting success during the early portion of our regular goose season.

Even with the special seasons Michigan hunters have enjoyed in recent history, many people still complain about not getting their fair share of the migratory goose pie.

"The timing of the season is critical," said Luukkonen. "Right now we're targeting the local giants, but if we changed to a more traditional goose season ' timing it with the peak of migration ' it would result in a shorter season to stay within the management goals."

Luukkonen indicated there is a very finite relationship between hunting days and harvest.

Although Michigan's goose season was shortened last year to only 30 days, hunters who got out into the field enjoyed great hunting. The early season provided some great sport for those who took time to scout and find concentrations of local birds. Hunters who complain about not being able to shoot their fair share of migratory geese really missed out if they didn't take advantage of the short Dec. 4-12 segment of the season last year.

"The December season benefits the ardent goose hunters," claimed Luukkonen. "Overall, Michigan goose hunters have a wonderful opportunity taking into account the number of days we have to hunt and the diversity."

What can Michigan goose hunters expect this season?

"It's hard to say what kind of season there might be this year," offered Luukkonen. "We need to find out about the status of the migratory population before we can make any decisions."

With the main focus of Michigan's goose season on local giant Canada geese, goose season goes the way local bird populations go.

"I would have to say that the number of local geese were down," said Citizen Waterfowl Advisory Committee member Mike Abson of Belding.

Goose hunting in mid-Michigan goes largely the way local goose populations go. Without large refuges or large bodies of water to attract migratory geese, hunting in the middle of our state depends on local giant Canadas. Like most of the state, their numbers have been reduced by the special seasons and increased hunting pressure across much of mid-Michigan.

While the shoreline of west Michigan draws its share of migratory birds, few hunters took advantage of the December season last year when migratory birds were abundant. The hunting was great for those who participated. Local geese were scarce during the early season.

"The early season has done its job," said one CWAC member. "There are probably half as many birds and twice as many hunters as there was just a few years ago."

Goose hunting at most of Michigan's managed waterfowl areas was generally poor in 2004.

"Due to changes in the federal framework covering the MVP of Canada geese, both the season length and Canada goose quota on the Muskegon Waste Water Treatment Plant were reduced in 2004," said wildlife biologist Nik Kalejs. "Reflecting the reduced season length, goose hunting success trended significantly downward."

Kalejs reported that only 232 Canada geese were killed on the WWTP in 2004 compared to 666 in 2003. Fewer hunts and hunter trips were only part of the reason ' goose hunter success rates also declined from .26 to .19 per hunter trip.

"A number of factors probably contributed to this decline, including a later opening date, weather, migration patterns and a surprisingly high ratio of adults to juveniles in the harvest," said Kalejs about the 66 percent to 34 percent ratio. "However, the change in the regular season framework and the resulting separation between WWTP hunting days and the regular goose season was a key factor."

Kalejs reported that goose numbers peaked at 7,800 birds during the last 10 days of October, down slightly from 2003 peak number of 8,000. A secondary peak in goose number occurred at the WWTP during the first 10 days of December when approximately 7,000 geese were using the area.

For more information on goose hunting opportunities at the Muskegon Waste Water Treatment Plant, call (231) 788-5055. For information on lodging and accommodations in the Muskegon area, contact the Muskegon County Convention & Visitors Bureau at (231) 722-3751 or online at

www.travel-muskegon.com.

The Allegan State Game Area encompasses over 50,000 of prime goose habitat in western Allegan County and includes the Fennville Farm Unit, Highbanks Unit, Bravo Unit and Ottawa Marsh Managed Waterfowl Unit. The area is very popular with Michigan goose hunters.

"Migration and waterfowl numbers at the Fennville Farm Unit did not cooperate with hunters in 2004," said wildlife technician Brandon Seitz. "Canada goose populations in and around the farm unit peaked just two days before the January hunt. The population plummeted from 20,035 on Dec. 29, 2004, to just 9,982 on Jan. 8, 2005."

While the Allegan County Goose Management Unit allowable harvest was dropped to 1,500 geese in 2004, the goose harvest declined significantly when compared with 2003.

"Only 662 geese were taken over the course of the 2004 season compared to 1,770 in 2003," said Seitz. "As a result, the Canada goose harvest was only 42.5 percent of the 2003 harvest during the Nov. 1-9 period. Canada geese harvested during the Jan. 1-16, 2005, period accounted for 90.4 percent of the harvest during the same period in 2004. Hunter success was 0.17 geese per hunter during the managed waterfowl hunt."

For more information on goose hunting opportunities at the Allegan Highbanks and Fennville Fa

rm units, call (269) 673-2430. For information on lodging and amenities in the Allegan area, contact the Southwestern Michigan Tourist Council at (269) 925-6301 or online at www.swmichigan.com.

Goose hunting improved at managed areas like Fish Point in 2004, but all still fell short of their quotas.

"The reported goose harvest for 2004 of 690 birds is 10 percent above the five-year average," said wildlife technician Tim Gierman. The figure is well short of the 750-bird quota for the Tuscola/Huron GMU. With a season that ran from Oct. 9 through Nov. 27 at the managed areas and a regular goose season that ran from Sept. 20 through Oct. 10 and Dec. 4-12 in areas outside the GMU, it didn't take the geese long to figure out where they could and couldn't go without getting shot at.

"I think at the areas around Saginaw Bay the geese are using the area up and then leaving the managed units for areas outside the GMU boundaries," said wildlife biologist Barb Avers. Geese just move to areas where they can and can't be hunted, depending on the season.

Torrential rains and flooding in May last year made it impossible for wildlife managers to get crops planted at Shiawassee River State Game Area last season. The lack of food and cover produced dismal goose hunting at SRSGA and in much of the GMU.

"The Saginaw County GMU harvested a total of 1,236 geese for the season," said wildlife technician Victor Weigold. "This number falls short of the 2,000-bird quota for the GMU for the sixth consecutive year. There was an overall harvest of 566 geese at the SRSGA. This is the lowest harvest number on record since 1986."

Hunters at the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge south of Saginaw enjoyed similar results, according to refuge biologist Jim Dastyck.

"Last season we harvested 253 geese by 644 hunters between Oct. 9 and Oct. 31," said Dastyck.

This resulted in a 39 percent success rate. Overall, Dastyck said 2004 was a slight improvement over 2003, which was the second-worst season on record. The kill was made up of about 40 percent local giant Canadas and 60 percent migratory geese.

For more information on hunting the Shiawassee River State Game Area, call (989) 865-6211. For details on goose hunting opportunities at the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge, call (989) 777-5930.

What does the 2005 goose season hold for Michigan hunters? Chances are that there will be fewer local giant Canada geese passing in front of the gun as hunters have been doing their part to manage local goose populations. How many migratory geese we're likely to see is up to Mother Nature, nesting success in the wilds of Canada and how the flyway council divvies up the spoils.

But no matter what, just make sure you get out there.

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