MINER COUNTY, S.D. — With his scratched arms cradled around the lively, belly-up bird, Rocco Murano clenched his pliers down on a shiny, new band.
The state’s senior waterfowl biologist loves this time of year, despite the annoying “goose hickies” that come with the work.
“They can getcha,” said Murano, referencing the lacerations where Canada geese clawed, scraped and chomped him.
During a recent June morning, Murano and 10 other South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks Department employees corralled a gaggle of geese on a wetland in Miner County.
As part of collaborative research in the Central Flyway, GF&P staff have increased efforts to track Canada geese through banding since 2012. In that time, GF&P has banded 8,375 Canada geese in South Dakota, and Murano said his department will band about 1,500 more this year.
Banding is the process of capturing a bird and putting a small metal band — which has a tracking number — around its foot. Murano and GF&P staff conduct banding efforts from late-July until mid-September on different species of birds, and the purpose is to calculate survival and harvest rates, along with determining population estimates.
To coordinate these banding efforts is quite a treat for Murano, as it was about 20 years ago that Canada geese numbers were down significantly, a time the bird was in a “restoration phase.”
“Since the late ’90s, we went out of restoration phrase, and now the population has increased very dramatically,” Murano said. “Things have changed a lot in a relatively short period of time. It’s a great success story.”
The process of banding
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates there were 155,000 resident Canada geese in South Dakota in 2015, and that number was as high as 270,000 in 2012.
While this year’s population estimate will be available later this month, 50 geese were slowly pushed toward an area of caged netting on June 22 in Miner County on one of many days Murano conducted banding work.
To do it, GF&P employees surrounded a large wetland and enticed the geese toward a funnel of nets that were set up and led to a trap.
Murano said it’s this time of year adult geese drop their flight feathers during an annual molting, and that’s when banding occurs. He explained Mother Nature times it so the adult birds are growing their new feathers out as the baby geese get bigger and feathered, and they’re learning how to fly.
To push the geese toward the nets, there were people in boats, others were in kayaks and some were hiding along the shore. Then, when the birds reached the netted area, the geese were fenced in.
Then, banding started.
Hannah Leeper, 22, of White Bear Lake, Minnesota, was hired this summer as a seasonal employee with GF&P.
The only woman of the group, Leeper said the hands-on style of work was what she loved about her third day on the job. The previous day, the group banded about 180 geese.
“We got a lot of practice really fast,” she said. “And I feel really comfortable handling wildlife.”
Properly banding the geese meant first determining the sex and age of the bird. Murano split the birds into four categories, immature male and female and adult male and female, to track with differing numbered bands.
“The birds are really far along this year,” Murano said. “We had an earlier hatch, which is good for banding.”
With a Canada goose cradled and the wings tucked back, the bander holds a leg and squeezes a loosely fit band to the bird’s leg with a pliers. Then, the goose is released back to the wetland after noting its age and sex.
American Band Company in Kentucky makes the bands, but they’re ordered out of the bird banding lab in Laurel, Maryland, where lucky hunters who harvest a banded goose calls to report its numbers.
“That’s where all the data goes,” Murano said.
To report a band, hunters call 1-800-327-BAND or go online at www.reportband.gov.
Early hunting seasons
When Murano graduated from high school in Huron in 1997, it was not legal to shoot a Canada goose in Beadle County because there were so few.
That’s changed dramatically, as the past several years there have been extremely liberal bag limits and early hunting seasons to help control populations.
In 2010, GF&P initiated an attempt to alleviate local agriculture depredation issues and reduce giant Canada goose populations by starting a special August Management Take. At the time, there were in excess of 200,000 Canada geese in South Dakota, well beyond the population objective of 80,000 to 90,000 breeding birds.
Some counties in South Dakota have held an early September Canada goose hunting season each year since 1996, but then populations exploded to kick off the August take.
“These birds have very high survival rates for a game bird, and they have four to six goslings annually,” Murano said. “Populations of any species can increase quickly with those factors.”
Murano explained this is the first year since 2010 that eastern South Dakota will not hold an August Management Take for Canada geese.
From 2010 to 2015, hunters have harvested 145,500 Canada geese during the August Management Take, which is only for counties in which Canada geese have proven to be nuisances on crops, mainly eastern and northeastern South Dakota.
“Harvest and hunting participation were low last year, and they had been declining for the past three years,” Murano said. “We heard a lot of negative comments from hunters, which is one of the main reasons the department called to bring it forward to eliminate it. We’re going to find out through efforts such as banding whether we actually see a reduction in harvest or if it stays the same. There’s a possibility the harvest rate stays the same because folks will only shoot so many geese, whether it’s August or September.”
Instead, South Dakota hunters will begin to hunt Canada geese starting on Sept. 3 this year.
A coordinated effort
While Murano and his GF&P banding crew are on the latter half of their efforts with Canada geese this year, they’ll continue on other species for several weeks.
Geese are typically banded in late-June through July; mourning doves are banded in July; and ducks are banded in mid-August until early-September.
Last year, GF&P banded 1,279 ducks in South Dakota and Murano said the goal each year is to band “as many as we can get.”
“Some years we’ll band 500 and some years 1,800, and we target primarily mallards,” he said. “It makes for a full summer.”
This is the fifth year in a coordinated effort across the Central Flyway to band Canada geese. The Central Flyway includes 10 states — ranging north from Montana and North Dakota south to New Mexico and Texas — and some Canadian provinces.
Murano said it’s the first time ever there’s been a coordinated banding effort in the Central Flyway. Once completed, the analysis of band recoveries will aid in the understanding of an indirect population estimate of the species in the Central Flyway along with learning regionalized survival estimates.
“We want to see if South Dakota has a lower survival rate, which it likely does, because we have a lot of hunting pressure up here,” Murano said.
South Dakota is also reconsidering its objective population goal of Canada geese to be increased from 80,000 to 90,000 resident birds to 125,000 to 175,000, a range that was agreed upon by a stakeholder group through research and population estimates.
“The stakeholder group was sportsmen, farming groups, GF&P agencies, and we all came together because we recognized the old objective was probably unattainable,” Murano said. “Hopefully this fall, we’ll get it finalized for the next five years.”
GF&P commissioners, the governing body of the department, will discuss the objective goal at their August meeting. They could finalize the objective in September.
The point of the objective is to help determine hunting limits, whether they should be liberal or conservative. It’s also to find a compromised number of Canada geese for sportsmen and landowners, Murano said.
That’s where banding comes in.
“This is an operational thing and a commitment moving forward,” Murano said. “We may not band at this level, but we’ll band geese each year. I always look forward to it. It gets me out of the office.”