Published April 05, 2009, 12:00 AM

Tales from the tundra: Renowned snow goose expert "Rocky" Rockwell to speak at UND

One of North America’s leading snow goose experts, Robert "Rocky" Rockwell will share stories and findings from his 40 years of studying arctic geese April 15 during two presentations at UND.

By: Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald

One morning last summer, Robert “Rocky” Rockwell was getting ready for another day at the research camp he oversees on the western coast of Hudson Bay when a polar bear wandered a bit too close for comfort.

He could have fired a “noisemaker” shotgun shell to scare the bear, but Rockwell chose a different approach:

“I shouted, ‘Get out of here you old bastard,’ and he got up and ran,” Rockwell said.

One of North America’s leading snow goose experts, Rockwell will share stories and findings from his 40 years of studying arctic geese April 15 during two presentations at UND. And yes, polar bear stories will factor into the mix. They’re a regular occurrence at La Perouse Bay, the site of a much-studied snow goose-nesting colony near Churchill, Man., on the southwestern coast of Hudson Bay.

“That’s basically my second home; my wife claims it’s my first home,” said Rockwell, 62, an ornithologist at the American Museum of Natural History and a biology professor at the City University of New York. “I stepped off the airplane in 1969 and I just fell in love with the place — the habitat, the environment, the people in Churchill.”

According to Mike Johnson, game management section leader for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck, anyone who’s ever marveled at the millions of snow geese that fly through North Dakota each spring and fall should catch at least one of Rockwell’s presentations.

These are the same birds Rockwell and a small team of graduate students study each summer at La Perouse Bay. In short, there’s too many of the geese, and they continue to decimate the fragile arctic habitat where they breed.

Johnson said news about the snow goose issue has fallen by the wayside a bit in recent years, but the problems they cause continue.

That’s despite liberalized hunting seasons and intensive management efforts that have been in place since the late 1990s.

Ground Zero

Rockwell’s work is at Ground Zero of the snow goose problem. While only a small percentage of the midcontinent geese actually nest at La Perouse Bay, nearly all of them stop there en route to breeding grounds elsewhere in the arctic.

“This is a great opportunity for waterfowl hunters, birders and anyone else to get a better understanding of what is going on with the snow geese and their habitats,” Johnson said. “For years, we’ve been telling our hunters about the overabundance of snow geese and the problems they are causing. Rockwell will provide visual and personal insight from someone who has spent every nesting season for nearly 40 years documenting the changes on and around the snow goose-nesting colony.”

Rockwell’s first presentation is set for noon April 15 in UND Starcher Hall Room 141 as part of the annual Glen Allen Paur Memorial Lecture. He’ll talk about the relationship between polar bears coming to shore from Hudson Bay earlier each year and the impact that’s having on nesting geese.

The UND Chapter of the Wildlife Society hosts the lectures each year to honor Glenn Allen Paur, a UND biology student who died in a 1978 boating accident while working on a research project just days after graduation.

Then, at 7 p.m., Rockwell is scheduled to speak in Leonard Hall 100 (lecture bowl), where he’ll review the status of snow goose populations, their impact on the tundra and how efforts to control their numbers are working.

Status report

According to Rockwell, some estimates have put the snow goose population in a range of 18 million to 25 million birds, but other models say it’s more like 9 million to 12 million.

The latter range, he said, seems more likely.

“The short story is, I think we’ve brought the population under a bit of control, but we’re not there yet,” Rockwell said. “There’s a lot of geese, and they’re damaging a very fragile habitat.”

More important than the number, Rockwell said, is what the habitat can sustain. Miles of coastal shoreline that once resembled a lush putting green now is bare and denuded, and the geese each year are working their way farther inland, destroying additional habitat.

The spring conservation order and other liberalized regulations have essentially doubled the light goose harvest in the Central and Mississippi flyways to a range from 1 million to 1.5 million annually.

That’s still not enough, Rockwell said, but he remains “cautiously optimistic” the damage the birds are causing someday can be reversed.

“I think we’ve really got to ramp up the harvest or they’re going to have to ramp up something else,” he said. “The habitat just can’t sustain that many birds, and if we want that coastal tundra to have any chance of being what it once was, that’s what’s going to have to be done.”

But that’s a social decision, he said, not biological.

Rockwell’s presentations at UND are sponsored by the UND Chapter of The Wildlife Society and the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. He’s also speaking at 7 p.m. April 16 at the Ducks Unlimited regional headquarters in Bismarck.

Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to bdokken@gfherald.com.

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