Minnesota's Goose Hunting Forecast

The North Star State is one of the top goose hunting locales in the United States, and this year shouldn't be any different.

by Noel Vick

There was a time when the daunting silhouettes of giant Canada geese darkened Midwestern skies. Symphonies of clucks and cries reverberated across the fields and marshes. Sometime around the turn of the last century, North America's population of giants peaked.

Soon, though, their numbers would plummet in a startlingly short period. The precipitous decline wasn't linked to any speculative comet flybys or meteor collisions, or the climatic transformations following the last Ice Age. Rather, like their winged cousin the passenger pigeon, which disappeared forever as a species in 1914, giant Canada geese suffered at the hands of man.

Our ancestors - without seasons or good reasons - harvested giant Canadas to near complete obliteration. Pedestrian egg hunters gathered the whites and yokes to feed their families. Hunters targeted adult birds. The marketplace urged shooters to take whatever they could.

According to Department of Natural Resources waterfowl specialist Jeff Lawrence, by about 1920 the graceful airships were believed to be extinct, gone the way of the dodo bird. A waterfowl empire mounted and collapsed in less than a century.

But even man, the ultimate predator, was this time unable to squelch them all. Left alone and unaccounted for, a small but steadfast population of giants gained a web-footed toehold in Minnesota and the neighboring Dakotas. The physically immense and believed-to-be extinct subspecies of the Canada goose was fundamentally rediscovered. And beginning in the early 1960s, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), departments of natural resources, and private organizations endeavored to re-establish populations. From brink to bounty, the restoration of giant Canada geese in North America might be our greatest example of man's influence on nature.

So where does modern-day Minnesota fit into the goose picture? Well, to give you an idea of how copious giants are in the North Star State, we, as Minnesotans, consistently harvest the largest number or second-largest number of birds in the United States. We sporadically flip-flop with Michigan for pole position. From 1996 to 2000, an average of 174,000 Canada geese were harvested annually in Minnesota, while Michiganders downed a norm of 138,000. Illinois falls into third position with a five-year average of 104,000 birds, followed by Ohio, at 83,000, and Wisconsin, at 77,000. Minnesota's potency as a producer of Canada geese is well documented.

Photo by Tom Migdalski

Our impressive average was buoyed by a record-smashing goose harvest in 1999 of 231,000 birds, but throttled back by 2000's slip to 159,000 birds. That being said, Lawrence anticipates that when the raw data for 2001 is tabulated, it will reveal a tremendous rebound from 2000. He bases the assumption on knowledge that roughly 112,000 geese were harvested during the early September hunt. Typically, special early and late seasons account for 40 percent of the total annual harvest. So when extrapolated, 2001's complete harvest numbers should, theoretically, forge into the 200,000s.

As hunters, we're always pitching blinds in the wrong direction, twitching when we should be statue-still, setting offensive decoy spreads, and of course, flat-out fanning. So, with an infinite number of missed opportunities factored into Minnesota's statewide harvest, we must be sitting on a treasure chest of actual breathing and honking geese. We are.

In a former life, Steve Maxson might have browsed on grass clippings and migrated in the fall. In Minnesota, Maxson, a DNR goose specialist, is to giant Canadas what Charles Lindbergh was to strut-based monoplanes - a consummate expert on the subject. Maxson asserts that Minnesota's current population of reproducing geese, primarily tabulated via helicopter surveys during breeding season, stands at approximately 335,000. Newly hatched goslings aren't part of the equation, either.

Why do geese thrive in Minnesota? The reasons are many.

First and foremost, giant Canada geese are survivors. Most breeds of critters would have folded and faded in the wrath of lawless hunting and gathering, but not giants. These are hardy birds that nest in less than ideal conditions and still produce impressive clutches. Speaking of clutches, Maxson says that giants produce larger clutches than other subspecies of Canada geese. Additionally, they nest earlier, nabbing the sweetest sites with the best cover and access to forage. And sometimes, this propensity to reproduce early leaves enough time to nest twice.

Still, there must be greater dynamics to Minnesota's goose explosion. There are. Sure, giant Canada geese tolerate humans, but more important is the fact that some of our behaviors and changes to the land and water actually benefit geese.

Provisions are a great place to begin. Without suitable foodstuffs, geese would live and breed elsewhere, or simply see their numbers cropped. But that's not the case. By nature, geese are grazers. Depending on the time of year and local availabilities, they chow on grasses, grains and other agricultural products like soybean and corn, all of which are plentiful.

Grasses mean everything from mowed Kentucky bluegrass to wild blue-joint grass. So when your neighbor maintains an immaculate lawn down to the water's edge - complete with nitrogen-rich fertilization and fresh trimmings - it might look more like Edina than Ely, but the geese love it. Ironically, the popularity of golf also plays a role as woods are sheared and cleared for grassy fairways and immaculate greens. And with an expansion in human population follows the creation of more parks and, consequently, more grass - more food for the geese.

Agricultural practices also play a role, particularly when fields butt up against wetlands, which they often do. Plenteous fields of soybeans, corn and sundry grains are staple dietary items and easy pickings for goslings, as they need only creep short and safe distances from the nest to partake of them.

Maxson adds that crop predation is so intense in some areas that the DNR issues permits to cull the perpetrators. But shooting nuisance geese is only used as a last resort. More often, the DNR relocates immature, flightless birds and traps adults, subsequently donating the meat to charitable causes.

So man aids and abets geese through practices that produce food. Inadvertently, we also reduce and sometimes eliminate the natural predation of geese. As homes and neighborhoods are established, frontline predators like foxes and wolves become displaced, as are lower predators such as raccoons, which curb production by robbing nests. As reparations, we offe

r only feral cats, and those reckless killers throw everything out of balance.

Because of stricter land-use practices and wetland protection, tracts of permanent water and wetlands are no longer manipulated or abused, for the most part. Ostensibly then, we create goose panaceas, complete with edible crops and grasses, prime breeding habitat and protection from predators. What else could a goose ask for?

Wintering grounds, you say? Make it possible for geese to skip the tiresome fall migration and hang around until spring? We do that, too. More lakes are aerated, leaving perpetual swaths of open water. Industrial warmwater discharges do the same. So, too, do steamy sections of creeks and rivers that are fed by run-off.

Geese, particularly giant Canadas, are living large and in harmony with human-folk. The big waterfowl are in play and it's high time to get in the game if you haven't.

Technically, when it comes to assessing Minnesota's goose population, the DNR divides the state into 11 Goose Management Blocks. But as Maxson acknowledges, for describing and suggesting areas to hunt this fall, it's simpler to regionalize matters. And at the top of his and Lawrence's charts for 2002 is west-central Minnesota. This land of undulating hills and tilled fields is goose paradise. Most slopes lead to stable wetlands, and nearly all cultivated crops are goose-friendly. Lawrence says that Grant, Stevens, Pope and Goodhue counties harbor the state's finest goose habitat. Truthfully, all you need to do is highlight Fergus Falls, Detroit Lakes, Alexandria, Glenwood and Appleton on a map and then connect the dots, and you'll be looking at the epicenter of Canada goose hunting in the United States.

Don Schultz, an area wildlife manager in Fergus Falls, substantiates the lofty claims about west-central Minnesota, citing that this past breeding season fashioned oodles of birds. The region held plenty of water in favored nesting areas, and although we endured a cold spring, few significant storms left their marks.

Schultz goes on to credit the area's ability to manufacture and attract geese to its abundance of wetlands that intermingle with agricultural fields and waterfowl refuges. The forage issue has already been underscored, but the refuge notion might be equally germane, and less talked about. Schultz views giant Canada geese as highly intelligent - so far as birds go - critters that quickly identify and capitalize on safe havens. In Fergus Falls, for example, upwards of 10,000 geese will rest, collectively, on lakes inside city limits during the peak of fall migration. Fergus Falls' outer limits boast numerous state-mandated and privately owned refuges. So it's peace in the valley for dark geese. That is, until they leave the watery sanctuaries to feed. According to Schultz, opportunistic hunters select recently harvested fields of corn or soybeans that are nearby such sanctuaries, which is why scouting is so important.

Schultz is also aware of an ever-increasing number of goose hunters who take to the water - some because accessing private land is onerous, and others because hunting geese over water poses a great but rewarding challenge. Schultz adds that the trend on water is employing larger decoy sets coupled with precision calling. As a result, many former "ducks only" waterfowl guides now set a bead on larger and darker profiles.

Specifically, Schultz endorses western Otter Tail County, while leaning more to the east when it comes to early-season hunts. And he sees Clay County as a sleeper for traveling hunters, because Otter Tail County draws greater attention. More waterfowl are harvested in Otter Tail than in any of Minnesota's other 87 counties.

Also making its mark in west-central Minnesota is the vaunted Lac qui Parle Wildlife Management Area, where approximately 7,400 geese were taken last season. The area is unique in its management, chiefly due to the fact that both resident geese, mostly giants, and migrant Eastern Prairie Population (EPP) Canada geese use it. EPP geese are a smaller subspecies - 7- to 9-pound average - that nests in northern Manitoba. The more widely protected and vulnerable EPP geese are closely monitored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and as a result Lac qui Parle hunters are subject to lighter bags and shorter seasons, which typically excludes early- and late-season hunts.

Interestingly, statewide the goose harvest is composed mainly of resident giant Canadas. Maxson says that somewhere between 85 and 87 percent of all geese downed in Minnesota are occupant birds, not migrants. But because of the more fragile nature of EPP populations, specified areas to the west are habitually closed to special seasons.

Notching second place is southwest Minnesota. According to Maxson, the region's landscape is flatter and draws off more water than west-central Minnesota, but nevertheless maintains an incredible residency of giant Canada geese. He suggests door knocking for field access around Windom, Worthington, Willmar and east to Mankato and Faribault.

Third position is less resolved, chiefly because viable goose populations are popping up across most of Minnesota. Goose clusters are less concentrated and regionalized than they used to be. So Maxson declares a three-way tie between northwest Minnesota, east-central Minnesota and southeast Minnesota.

Northwest Minnesota offers mostly flatlands with more scattered bird populations than territories to the south, but strong numbers nonetheless. Maxson recommends exploring around Thief Lake Wildlife Management Area, Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge - not in it, of course - and annexes of the Roseau River.

Minnesota's east-central part yields a fine blend of plowed fields and durable wetlands. Maxson says to look for concentrations of geese near Cambridge, Hinckley and St. Cloud.

The Mississippi River, its tributaries and its backwaters put southeast Minnesota on Maxson's list. Bluff country west of the river isn't nearly as accommodating to geese, so stick near the bottoms. The terrain improves again, though, turning to flatter prairie as you venture farther east.

That's the cream of the crop, but certainly not the end-all for geese in Minnesota. Take the metro area, for example. No other piece of property is better suited for geese, but unfortunately it's the least accessible to shooters. Urban wildlife specialist Bryan Lueth is acutely involved with metro geese, and he says that there are piles of birds around, upwards of 20,000 breeders, in fact. For the most part, he ties their prosperity to the metro's copious offerings of short, edible grasses found next to open water. Sounds like a statewide trend. Lueth also recognizes the quantity of wetlands found inside the seven-county metro area, as well as leash laws, which keep domestic pets from guzzling eggs or causing harm to juvenile birds.

The challenge, of course, is locating a swath of suburbanized Minnesota that's legal to hunt, not to mention possessed by willing landowners. Lueth recommends first determining which cities - usually outer ring communities - sanction the discharge of firearms. This information is easily attainable from city offices. Step two is putting on your happy face and

ringing doorbells on farmhouses.

In the metro area, goose hunting is allowable within specified county parks by special permit, which usually involves a license by lottery. As well, a few golf courses now sanction goose hunts as a useful means to control escalating bird populations, and the DNR is busy lobbying other golf courses to provide similar opportunities.

Disabled hunters can look to Capable Partners (763-542-8156 or on the Web at www.capablepartners.com) for information on exclusive goose hunting opportunities in the metro area.

And at present, metro hunters can participate in the early September, regular season and late December hunts. And according to Lueth, within the next couple of years it's likely that an August goose hunt will be implemented.

Other than the perennial hotbeds, there are the forested lands of north and northeast Minnesota - certainly not textbook goose territory. But as statewide populations expand, so, too, does the range of giant Canada geese.

Lawrence speaks about pockets of geese in wooded country, some holding healthy concentrations of birds. He cites the increase in geese around Bemidji from the time he arrived back in 1988. I can picture the swollen flocks of geese I see each fall while jigging walleyes on Leech, Winnibigoshish and Lake of the Woods.

Maxson closes by using craggy and coniferous northeast Minnesota as an example of the flexibility of our mounting goose population. Once void of giants, the region now boasts nesting pairs that number into the thousands, offering respectable hunting opportunities on forested ponds.

In an era marked by dwindling wildlife habitat and vulnerable species, it's refreshing to discuss an animal population that flourishes. Giant Canada geese, without argument, afford the finest waterfowling opportunity available to a hunter with a Minnesota license and pocket full of shells.

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