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Millions of snow geese imperil fragile ecosystem

Far-northern breeding grounds are devastated. A major culprit: expanded farming in US Midwest.

Snow geese have denuded the vegetation. Only reddish salt-tolerant salicornia thrives – except where researchers fenced geese out.

Courtesy of The Hudson Bay Project

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In the mid-1980s, scientists began noticing a curious phenomenon in goose nesting grounds along the western edge of Canada’s Hudson Bay. Once-verdant salt marshes were transforming into barren mud flats. With plant cover gone, evaporation accelerated and the soil quickly became too salty for all but a few species. By August, only the reddish salt-tolerant salicornia plant remained in a landscape often littered with dead, bleached willow branches.

Lesser snow goose populations had quadrupled since the 1970s. So many geese were arriving at their summer breeding grounds that they were eating not just plant shoots, but roots as well.
The non-interventionist camp argued that goose numbers would naturally return to an equilibrium once the food ran out. But others feared that continued overgrazing would irrevocably damage the ecosystem. Humans had to intervene, they said.

The interventionists prevailed and, 10 years ago, wildlife agencies ratcheted up hunting pressure. Now they are unsure if the increased culling is working. Further deterioration of an already degraded landscape appears to have halted, but the marshes haven’t begun to recover. Unsure what else they can do, they have adopted a wait-and-see approach for now. Here’s the problem: Further population control, which would probably mean some sort of mass extermination, is as technically difficult as it is ethically questionable.

“Large-scale elimination of birds in concentration – that would be an unprecedented move,” says Dale Humburg, chief biologist of Ducks Unlimited in Memphis, Tenn., a conservation and hunting group.

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