It’s about 9 a.m. on Wednesday morning. I’m on North Dakota Highway 1 about 9 miles southwest of Cooperstown, N.D., and there are about 90,000 snow geese in sight. I’m pretty sure of the time and distance, but less so about the number of geese. There could have been more.
Wave after wave of geese passed, headed directly north and west.
I pulled over, stopped the car and opened the door. The voice reading an audiobook stopped, and the noise of geese overwhelmed me.
Geese are noisy, and lots of geese are really noisy. For a few minutes, the noise of geese displaced every other sound, filling the sky and blowing against my eardrums.
I closed the car door.
I had just experienced one of the great natural phenomena that occur in North Dakota.
Probably more snow geese passed through the state this spring than has ever before been the case. Numbers of Canada geese, including resident giant Canadas, are up, too. I’ve also seen more white-fronted geese than I have in other years.
Geese are experiencing a population explosion.
This is not a good thing. In fact, wildlife biologists are wondering how to reverse the growth in the goose population. Plainly put, the geese are endangering their own future.
Many of the geese passing through North Dakota in the spring are heading for a place called La Perouse Bay. This is on the western shore of Hudson Bay about 40 miles east of Churchill, Man. Churchill is famous as the end of the railroad line and the easiest place on earth to watch polar bears. The town is about 750 miles from Grand Forks, bearing a little east of due north.
So what were the geese doing flying northwest, essentially the wrong the direction to reach their nesting grounds?
The geese have adapted to changing agricultural conditions, moving their migration route westward as more and more food became available. Geese are gleaners and grazers; they scoop up grain left in harvested fields and pluck out new shoots growing in fields that have yet to be tilled.
These are widely available across North Dakota and Canada’s prairie provinces, and the geese essentially follow the food northwestward into Saskatchewan before turning eastward toward La Perouse Bay.
The abundance of food available in farm fields far exceeds what native prairie would have provided for the geese.
Raising crops pretty much replaced mixed fields and pastures in the 1960s, and since then, goose migration routes have moved steadily westward, so much so that big numbers of snow geese are more seldom encountered in the Red River Valley than they were historically, and much larger flocks have occurred farther west.
The establishment of national wildlife refuges, beginning in the 1930s, has provided protected resting places for the geese, and very large numbers congregate at such places as Tewaukon National Wildlife Refuge in southeast North Dakota and J. Clark Salyer National Wildlife Refuge in the north central part of the state.
All of this has created a kind of perfect storm. Within the last two decades, the population of snow geese has grown so large the birds have denuded their nesting grounds and pushed farther inland. This has two consequences. It eliminates habitat for other Arctic nesting species, a serious concern. It also means less food for new generations of snow geese.
Wildlife biologists have sought ways to reduce the goose population. One that’s being tried is a spring snow goose hunting season, technically called a management action as opposed to a hunt. Spring hunting was one of the great controversies in early game management. By the early 1900s, North Dakota had prohibited spring hunting. For a century, the idea was unthinkable because goose numbers were so low that killing them in spring would mean fewer breeding birds and reduced populations.
No longer. This year’s season on so-called “light geese” runs until mid-May.
Much research is under way into the population dynamics of snow geese. Researchers at the University of North Dakota are involved in this, so the problem is providing training for a new generation of wildlife biologists.
Dave Lambeth, the dean of local birders, suggests I used too few zeros in my estimate of the ratio of western to eastern meadowlarks. I suggested it was 10 to one. Lambeth says 10,000 to one would be more realistic. He’s seen only one eastern meadowlark in Grand Forks County, he said. As it happens, he showed me that bird, and it made a deep impression — too deep.
Writer Larry Woiwode had something to say about meadowlarks Wednesday night during a reading at Bismarck Public Library. Agricultural chemicals are to blame for the decline in meadowlark numbers, he suggested, saying that land he owns near Burt in southwest North Dakota has lots of meadowlarks because “it’s been organic for 40 years.”