Wisconsin Goose Hunting 2007

Wisconsin Goose Hunting 2007

Add together high numbers of both resident and migratory Canada geese, mix in some of the largest wetlands on the continent, flavor with liberal hunting regulations, and you've got a recipe for outstanding goose hunting. (November 2007)

Hunters who concentrate their efforts on one of the counties in the Exterior Zone should look for geese feeding or flying over harvested grain fields. Charlie Thon of Cedarburg shot this goose on a hunt in Waukesha County.
Photo by Dan Small.

Canada geese and goose hunters alike love Wisconsin. The Badger State lies smack in the path of a half-million mid-continent geese that migrate to and from Canada each year, as they have for eons. And in the last decade, Wisconsin has become home to a fast-growing flock of resident geese that rarely leave the state, even in the depth of winter.

Add those two factors together, mix in some of the largest wetlands on the continent, flavor with liberal hunting regulations, and you've got a recipe for outstanding goose hunting.

Wisconsin sportsmen have always enjoyed goose hunting, but until recently, restrictive regulations have limited the harvest to protect the migrant geese from over-exploitation. That population continues to prosper, and now that nearly every city, village, industrial park and golf course is home to a flock of resident Canada geese, regulations have gradually relaxed to the point where, if you don't have a freezer full of goose breasts by season's end, it's your own darned fault.

A Little History

Most of the migrant geese that visit Wisconsin each year are from the Mississippi Valley Population (MVP) that breeds along the southern Hudson Bay coast in Canada and migrates south each fall through Wisconsin and Michigan, and then Illinois, Indiana and western Ohio. Most birds move no farther south than Kentucky and Tennessee, although some go as far south as Mississippi. A second major population of Canada geese is the resident or "giant" race that breeds in Wisconsin.

The Mississippi Flyway Council (MFC) was established in 1952 to work cooperatively among the states, provinces and federal governments in the management of migratory birds. In 1956, the MFC established a Canada Goose Committee to manage the harvest and distribution of several Canada goose populations in the flyway.

In the 1950s, the MVP carried the primary numbers of Canada geese in Wisconsin, at a time when the giant Canada goose was considered nearly extinct. During this period, the Horicon National Wildlife Refuge began managing specifically to support migrating MVP geese during the fall. During the early 1960s, MVP geese steadily increased at Horicon, with fall numbers exceeding 100,000 birds and harvests of nearly 1,000 per day across a nine- to 11-day season.

As goose numbers grew, so did complaints about agricultural damage, leading to damage payments to farmers and nuisance-goose tags for hunters. In the 1960s, social, political and biological forces resulted in actions such as hazing and a harvest of 30,000 geese in three days of shooting in 1966. In the 1970s, up to 80 percent (250,000-300,000 birds) of the MVP winter population stopped at Horicon and surrounding areas.

Meanwhile, a few small remnant flocks of giant Canada geese were discovered in southern Wisconsin and elsewhere in the flyway during the 1950s and 1960s. Restoration efforts that included captive breeding, trap-and-transfer and closed seasons in some areas have been so successful that giant Canadas are the most abundant subspecies in the flyway.

New Management Strategy

State and federal biologists historically have tried to maintain a high abundance of MVP geese. As part of this strategy, the MFC sets annual harvest limits, or quotas, for each state. The increase in resident goose numbers has provided more harvest opportunity but has also led to more conflict with farmers and anyone who uses parks, golf courses and other open areas. Today, across all states in the flyway, more than 80 percent of the annual harvest during the regular season consists of resident geese.

Wisconsin's goose hunting regulations have evolved in recent years. Today, there are separate permits, season dates and harvest limits for the Horicon, Collins and Exterior zones during the so-called "regular" season, and a statewide 15-day early season in September that targets resident geese.

Hunters may hunt during the early season and also in one of the regular season zones. Unlimited early-season permits are valid statewide. The bag limit is now five birds per day for the 15-day season, with no season limit. Exterior Zone permits, also unlimited, are valid everywhere but in the Horicon or Collins zones. Horicon and Collins zone permits are available by application and are valid for those zones only.

Biologists now believe that the resident population can buffer MVP geese from overharvest and have agreed to test this theory by setting stable seasons and bag limits for the next five years while monitoring harvests. Managers expect this strategy will increase the overall harvest of resident geese and slow the population growth of this subspecies, with little effect on the MVP geese.

Each state brought to the MFC a proposal for a stabilized five-year season structure, according to waterfowl ecologist Kent Van Horn of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR).

"Of all the states in the flyway, we (Wisconsin) have the lowest percentage of MVP geese in our harvest," Van Horn pointed out, "and, yet, we have the highest potential to negatively impact MVP numbers. So, our proposal received a little more scrutiny."

For the Exterior Zone, Van Horn was able to negotiate two proposed season frameworks, which were presented at last spring's statewide Fish and Wildlife Rules Hearings: an 85-day season with a two-bird-per-day bag limit, or a 92-day season with a two-bird bag limit for 70 days and a one-bird limit for 22 days.

Hunters overwhelmingly preferred the 85-day option. As of this writing, Van Horn said he anticipates the Natural Resources Board would choose this option and a Horicon Zone season framework with six tags per hunter at its July meeting. These regulations were then to be printed and distributed to license vendors and posted online at http://dnr.wi.gov.

Last Fall's Harvest

In the statewide September season and in the Exterior Zone during the regular season, all Canada goose hunters are required to report their harvest within 48 hours using the 1-800-99-GOOSE telephone call-in system. WDNR law enforcement personnel conduct field checks of hunters to assure compliance with the recording system.

Last year, 68,152

hunters received early-season permits -- down 6,285 (8 percent) from 2005. The decline may not indicate a drop in active hunters, however. The Conservation Patron license includes free early-season and Exterior Zone permits for those who want them. Conservation Patron license sales dropped when the fee rose.

Statewide, Wisconsin waterfowlers killed an estimated 20,034 geese during the September season. This was the highest harvest on record -- 25 percent higher than in any previous year -- for the early season,

"To kill 20,000 birds in two weeks is pretty significant," Van Horn observed. "Especially when you consider that was a quarter of all the geese killed in all seasons last year."

The top 10 early-season counties and their harvest totals last year were: Manitowoc, 1,177; Brown, 1,170; Polk, 1,014; Door, 813; Winnebago, 805; Sheboygan, 782; Marathon, 736; Barron, 528; Waukesha, 522 and Walworth, 506. Combined, these counties accounted for 8,053 geese, or 40 percent of the statewide early-season harvest. Nine of those counties were among the top 10 counties statewide in the previous three years.

Regular-season permits last year numbered 97,059 -- a decline of 9,392, or 9 percent, from 2005. Again, the Conservation Patron license fee increase may have contributed to this drop, which may not indicate a decline in active hunters.

Since 1999, Exterior Zone permit numbers hovered around 80,000. Last year, 81,993 permits were issued. Horicon Zone permits numbered 14,709 in 2006 -- down 4,527 or 23 percent from 2005 -- even though successful applicants received six tags last year, compared with four in 2005. Horicon permit numbers have gradually declined as geese have become more available statewide. Collins Zone permits also declined over the past two decades, numbering as low as 357 last season.

The statewide regular season Canada goose harvest in 2006 was 62,346 birds. The top 10 counties (and their harvest totals) statewide for overall harvest were: Dodge, 10,825; Fond du Lac, 4,364; Brown, 3,111; Manitowoc, 2,999; Washington, 2,139; Green Lake, 2,102; Sheboygan, 2,057; Outagamie, 2,004; Racine, 1,986 and Waukesha, 1,785. This distribution reflects the continued concentration of geese in and around the Horicon (Dodge, Fond du Lac, Green Lake, Washington) and Collins (Manitowoc) zones. All the top 10 counties have been in the top 10 statewide at least once in the last three years.

Zone harvest totals were: Collins, 493; Horicon, 18,549 and Exterior, 43,304. The Exterior Zone harvest represented 69 percent of the statewide regular season harvest. Proportions were similar in 2005 (74 percent) and 2004 (63 percent). The actual harvest for the Exterior Zone was the highest since 1990.

The top 10 counties in the Exterior Zone harvest included: Brown, 3,111; Manitowoc, 2,505; Sheboygan, 2,057; Outagamie, 2,004; Racine, 1,986; Waukesha, 1,785; Dane, 1,769; Kenosha, 1,698; Ozaukee, 1,511 and Walworth, 1,333.

The total harvest for the Horicon Zone was 18,549 birds in 2006, which was 30 percent of the statewide harvest. This total was higher than in 2005 (12,025) and was a larger proportion of the statewide harvest compared with 2005 (26 percent). As in previous years, the highest harvest occurred in period 2, followed by period 3. Only about one-third of the Horicon zone hunters harvested more than two geese, and only about one-tenth of the hunters filled all six of their harvest tags. Increases in participation and success were likely a result of the increase in tags issued from four to six and the greater number of MVP geese that fly in the fall flight.

The Collins Zone is a relatively small harvest management zone in an area with high harvest potential because of the key goose concentrations in the area. Manitowoc County is the fourth highest in Canada goose harvest, when combining the harvest from all zones. The total harvest for the Collins Zone was 493 birds in 2006, which was 33 percent of the quota for that zone. While small, the Collins Zone represents an area of consistently high hunter success compared with other areas of the state.

Production of MVP geese in 2006 was very good after a good year, too, in 2005. Wisconsin's harvest quota increased two-fold in 2006 due to good production in MVP geese and resident geese, and a shift in the harvest toward resident giant Canada geese. The overall harvest level in 2006 was 46 percent (131,100) of the quota, representing fewer birds killed than those taken in recent years -- 76 percent in 2005, 86 percent in 2003 and 82 percent in 2004.

Van Horn pointed out the "quota" is not a goal to be reached; rather, the quota is an absolute upper limit of birds that can be harvested without having negative effects on the population. Last year's quota included 1,500 birds in the Collins Zone, 27,000 birds in the Horicon Zone and 102,600 birds in the Exterior Zone.

Most hunters shoot a few birds during the season, but the opportunity for a much larger harvest usually stands tall. In fact, some hunters routinely shoot more than 100 geese in Wisconsin each year.

Breeding Populations

In 2006, the breeding surveys for MVP geese in northern Ontario indicated a better production year than 2005, according to Van Horn. The breeding population was estimated at 384,353 birds, an 11 percent increase from 2005 numbers and 6 percent higher than the average of the previous 17 years. This allowed a higher harvest quota to be allocated to the quota states in the Mississippi Flyway, including Wisconsin. In addition, Wisconsin's 2006 breeding population estimate for giant Canada geese showed a 9 percent increase from 2005. Moreover, the 2006 estimate of 135,000 birds is still well above the long-term average of 74,000 birds.

Breeding population estimates for 2007 were still being tabulated as of this writing, but Van Horn said preliminary reports suggested good conditions in Wisconsin and on Hudson Bay. He anticipates another good production year.

"Geese seemed to be nesting a little earlier in Wisconsin this year," Van Horn said. "What I've heard from Hudson Bay is that conditions seemed early and things looked good."

Hunting Prospects

The early September season is already history, and the regular season is well under way. Hunters who struck afield in September have a good idea of what conditions and success rates are, at least in the areas where they hunt. Once the regular season begins, however, goose hunting becomes a different game altogether.

"In October and November, you want to find harvested grain fields," Van Horn pointed out. "And you'll be hunting a mix of migrants and residents."

Both subspecies look the same in the air. When you get them in hand, however, giant resident geese can weigh 12 pounds or more; MVP geese are considerably smaller. Resident geese are more abundant closer to major metropolitan areas, but MVP birds will roam far in search of food, so you're likely to find both species most anywhere in the state.

The key to good goose hunting is advance scouting. Jerry Solsrud, fou

nder of the Wisconsin Waterfowl Association and now retired, hunts nearly every day of the season. After each morning's hunt, he scouts for the next day's hunt, seeking permission on new farms if he needs to. In this way, Solsrud can hunt new geese and new fields every day.

Horicon and Collins zone permit applications were due Aug. 1. Hunters who don't already hold permits won't be hunting one of those zones this fall. However, Exterior Zone permits are available for the remainder of the season.

Hunters who concentrate their efforts on one of the counties in the Exterior Zone or from among the statewide top 10 counties should do well this season. Look for geese feeding or flying over harvested grain fields. Geese will move to new fields as they are harvested because food there is more abundant and easier to find. And don't overlook standing corn, especially if there is snow on the ground. Solsrud pointed out that geese will eat corn off the stalks rather than leave the area.

"When there's 6 or 8 inches of new snow on the ground, and geese can't find corn in the picked fields where they've been feeding all fall, they just move into standing corn where they can land outside and walk into the rows," he explained.

There's no excuse not to hunt geese in Wisconsin. Birds are abundant, farmers welcome hunters, and you can count on the new goose regulations to remain the same for five years, which makes planning a hunt much easier. Take advantage of Wisconsin's fantastic goose hunting this fall and see if you don't find yourself as addicted to it as is Jerry Solsrud.

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