March 30, 2020
By M.D. Johnson
It was late March or early April. I’d driven south from Iowa to Sumner, Mo., home to Tony Vandemore’s Habitat Flats waterfowl hunting lodge and, at that moment, the temporary resting spot for more than a million snow geese. Most were using nearby Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), now named Loess Bluffs NWR, as a stopover on their way north.
I met Vandemore afield, where he was shaking hands with four clients headed to the airport. “Pick a blind,” the tall Missourian told me. “We’ll just see what happens this afternoon.”
What happened was unbelievable.
The first flock was to the west moving north with a south wind. As I watched, Vandemore reached out of his layout and flipped a switch. The sound of a thousand feeding white geese filled the airspace above our stubble field. Out front, three rotary machines, each with four “flying” snow goose decoys, began spinning.
I wasn’t sure what he was doing. The geese were far away and on the move. But as I watched, the huge mass of birds made a wide lazy turn east, then south.
“No way,” I said, unfortunately aloud.
To my right, Vandemore laughed quietly, knowingly.
Five minutes. Ten. I’m not sure. All I know is at one point, I felt like I was living in the world’s biggest snow globe. Everywhere I looked, there was white. And black. And sky. And motion. In the background, an electronic cacophony. Walls of noise, above and below. Time stopped. Screamed. Closer and closer and closer.
Then Vandemore’s voice boomed, “MAKE A PILE!” Down the lines, bodies jerked upright. Hollow booms. The flock exploded, some falling, others—many others—scattering all directions. A tsunami of sound.
Then it was over. Vandemore’s celebrated Lab, Ruff, began retrieving. Congratulatory slaps. Bolts slamming shut. Speakers went silent; rotary machines stopped.
“Well? What do you think there, buddy?” Vandemore’s voice again, quiet this time. He wore an ear-to-ear grin.
For once—and something that doesn’t happen often—I couldn’t find the words. Snow geese will do that.
AN INTRIGUING OPPORTUNITY
Up and down the Mississippi and Central flyways, similar scenes repeat every spring as avid waterfowlers return afield, participating in what’s officially known as the Light Goose Conservation Order (LCGO). The framework has only existed for roughly two decades now, and some hunters also call it the Special Conservation Order, Spring Conservation Order or the Spring Snow Goose Season.
That much of the central United Statesenjoys this special season is, by now, no secret. However, the LGCO’s history, current status and its future are certainly of interest to many waterfowl hunters. Which is why it’s important to examine the LGCO, and to touch on what hunters might expect to see, regulation-wise, this spring and beyond.
“There was a concern in the 1970s, ’80s and early part of the ’90s of a growing white goose population based both on mid-winter surveys [conducted in the southern U.S.] and aerial surveys in the Arctic,” said Josh Dooley of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Division of Migratory Bird Management.
Based in the Pacific Flyway but with national responsibilities, Dooley works with Fish and Wildlife’s Branch of Assessment and Decision Support. Among other duties, the branch oversees population assessment, population monitoring and status reporting for purposes of setting harvest regulations on all national goose issues.
“We saw pretty explosive [population] growth during those decades,” he added. “There was also a concern in the Central, Mississippi and Atlantic flyways regarding vegetation degradation, primarily salt marsh habitats, especially on the west side of the Hudson Bay, as well as in the St. Lawrence estuary.”
It was decided action was needed to stabilize growing numbers of light (snow and Ross’s) geese. This, in turn, would help curtail damage being done in the Arctic by Mid-Continent light geese, and in the Atlantic Flyway by an increasing population of greater snows.
“It was a hot-button issue,” Dooley said. “The matter made its way to the House of Representatives, and committee discussion in ’98 involving modifying the Migratory Bird Treaty Act [of 1918] to allow for additional control measures.”
Such, said Dooley, was done in the late ’90s through revisions to existing U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regulations. The resulting changes allowed “additional methods of take,” including but not limited to unplugged shotguns, the use of electronic calls and extended season dates.
Thus, the LGCO came into being. With some exceptions, daily bag limits were done away with. No more three-shot restrictions. Electronic calls became standard gear. The bandwagon rolled, and in the central U.S. from Louisiana to North Dakota, ’fowlers stuffed hundreds—likely thousands—of plastic snow geese into specialized trailers, bought non-toxic ammunition by the case and embarked en masse on one of the most exciting, albeit frustrating, hunting ventures available.
THE LGCO: TODAY AND TOMORROW
Establishing numerical estimates of wild populations is incredibly challenging, especially with the migratory nature of white geese. According to Dooley, the current scientifically estimated population of adult Mid-Continent lesser snow geese stands at roughly 12 million, with a population objective of less than half that, or 5 million.
“That objective,” Dooley said, “is based upon the initial goal when establishing special regulations to reduce the population by approximately 50 percent. As long as abundance remains above that objective [5 million], we’ll likely continue with the current regulations.”
Dooley explained management plans for Mid-Continent lesser snows were updated in 2018, and while many management actions were recommended in those plans, overall harvest strategy remained largely status quo. There was no indication of a “dramatic pull-back in conservation order regulations.” Spring snow goose season as we know it should continue into the forseeable future.