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Jonathan Wilkins | 2.16.2023

Chasing Snows

Snow geese suffer from a particularly unfavorable PR image. Seen as more of an invading horde than migrating birds, they’re often referred to as sky carp, snow buzzards and even flying fertilizer, suggesting their only value lie in whatever mineral content they might contribute to the American grain stores. We talk about them in terms of damage they do to landscapes and revel in the damage we can inflict on them.

For years we’ve heard that there are too many light geese, their populations growing exponentially due to the species‘ adjustment to the bread basketing of America. The birds’ hard-scrabble foraging in the coastal marshes being supplanted by their gathering en masse in the croplands found across their southern flyways. Converging with one another in conspicuously large winter flocks, they eat rice, corn and beans. Later, they mob verdant fields of winter wheat and lay waste to cover crops. Come late spring and throughout the summer, they return to their northerly place of origin. Fattened by the agricultural fields of North America and numbering in the many millions, they are too much for the land to bear. Their vigorous feeding also spells doom for other nesting shorebirds.

There’s no malice in them, though, and it’s important to remember that. They are driven by the most basic of motives: to feed and breed and exist. Now, they are doing so to their peril. They persist, and in doing so they degrade the places needed for life. It’s easy to relate, as a member of a species with an eerily relatable track record.

Since 1999, a federal conservation order has called upon hunters to take snows and Ross’s on their return migration each spring. This additional season was instituted with the intention of reducing light geese numbers in a significant way before they make it back to their spring staging/breeding grounds. Management agencies have tried to encourage liberal harvests of light geese by allowing electronic calls, unplugged guns and extended hunting hours. Waterfowlers have taken on the Sisyphean task of trying to right an avian population that’s become a danger to itself. It’s undoubtedly an ambitious pursuit and if the last 20 years are any indication, far more difficult than many initially expected.

This presents an ethical consideration for hunters. How do we participate in a hunt where the numbers of birds harvested takes such a prominent role? How do we do so without devaluing the resource? I’d argue that we maintain our integrity by putting our impetuses for becoming hunters at the forefront. It’s worth reminding ourselves why we fell in love with waterfowl in the first place, because it sure as hell wasn’t for ease or efficiency. It was the calling or the sunrises or the dog work, but it’s never been just about the end result. We’re hunters not plunderers. Part of nature, not conquers of it. If we aren't careful, it’s easy to think of light geese as the dregs of the wing shooting world. Conservation can become muddled with elimination and we start to miss the plot of it all.

The effort involved in a spring conservation hunt helps me to keep perspective. Once you consider the investment of time required to scout, find huntable numbers of birds, gain access to land and compile equipment, it’s a wonder that so many folks are so committed to the chase. That drive is one of the defining characteristics of a waterfowler. It’s optimism incarnate, the result of many mornings waiting for a gust of wind or a ray of sunlight to change your fate.

We endure because of the ineffable joy brought on when things go right. There’s a beautiful raucousness that comes with every successful snow goose hunt. An orchestral mix of textures and sounds that wash over you like a frothing, Arctic wave. Amidst a sea of attentive decoys and flapping wings sometimes stars align and you lose yourself in the vortex it creates. It’s a squawking, rolling, whirling collective, the bird version of a stampede. For a moment you can imagine what it would have been like to witness herds of buffalo thundering across the prairie with no beginning or end in sight.

As quickly as it began, the spectacle corrects itself and the flock goes someplace else. A few moments before, the sun couldn't be seen through the birds, but suddenly, the landscape is as void and desolate as a junior high dance floor. Then, it’s time to marvel at the birds in hand and tip our hats to the ones that got away. We’ll excuse our misses and blame the sun or the dog or the wind. Then we’ll rest and do it all again—ever the optimist, ever the waterfowler, ever the hunter.