Canada Geese are everywhere. They blanket golf courses, leave droppings on city park lawns, and foul ponds. They are a significant agricultural pest, especially of winter wheat. They’re even implicated in plane crashes, such as US Airways Flight 1549’s emergency “splash down” in the Hudson River last January.
You can find them on any body of water, even transient wetlands devoid of food. You hear honking and look up to see them flying east or west as well as north and south, arranged in their ragged v-formations. They seem so abundant that it’s hard to imagine they were ever endangered, but at one time the “Giant” subspecies (Branta canadensis maxima) was thought to be extinct!
A hundred years ago, unrestricted egg harvesting, habitat destruction, and commercial hunting had totally decimated the Giant Canada goose population. By the 1950s, the subspecies was assumed to be gone.
In 1967, the US Fish and Wildlife Service listed another subspecies, the Aleutian-Canadian goose, as endangered. This time, the culprit was a non-native arctic fox that was introduced to their breeding grounds. Canada Geese molt while nesting, and are unable to fly at that time, making them easy prey. The foxes reduced the goose population to around 800 individuals.
Since that time, a number of measures have resulted in an almost unbelievable rebound in goose populations. The Migratory Bird Treaty, passed in 1918, established limits in both the number of geese taken, and the season in which they may be hunted. National Wildlife Refuges provide for habitat preservation and restoration. As numbers grew, birds were reintroduced to their former range, increasing their distribution and reducing the risk of a cataclysmal event wiping out an entire subspecies.
As a result, the Aleutian-Canadian Goose population has increased to approximately 15,000 individuals distributed across eight islands. In 1990 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service changed their listing from endangered to threatened, and the state of Alaska now calls them a species of special concern.
The story of the Giant Canada Goose is even more amazing. Birders were thrilled when a small flock was discovered wintering in Rochester, Minnesota in 1962. Conservation efforts were so successful that there are now approximately 3.5 million of these birds in the United States!
While western goose populations may still be declining, the Canada Goose is currently called a “species of least concern.” In fact, numbers are so great that the geese have become a nuisance in much of the country. The species may soon exceed the carrying capacity of its habitat, causing damage to the environment Now the challenge is to balance conservation efforts with targeted control programs, so that we can live in harmony with this majestic species.