Does the Ottawa hunt affect northern goose populations?

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By Nigel Orr

7-year-old Hilton John Weapenicappo’s first goose

7-year-old Hilton John Weapenicappo’s first goose

I spent a short amount of time hunting geese on Champion Lake this spring. The migratory pattern of the geese seemed strange and the number of them seemed to be declining. My father and I were wondering if the hunt in Ottawa could be having an effect. As we pondered, the student in me kicked in and I began to conduct some research. This is what I found.

(1) There are a number of distinct populations of Canada geese in Canada that are grouped together based on which migratory flyway they use. There are two populations hunted in Ottawa; (a) the resident geese, that don’t migrate, and (b) the Atlantic population that come from northeastern American states, travel through Ottawa and then through Eeyou Istchee before finally settling around the Ungava peninsula to lay their eggs.

According to Environment Canada, “Canada geese return to nest where they first learned to fly. Canada geese breeding in southern Canada are not northern geese that stopped migrating, they are the result of the natural increase of populations that were re-introduced or introduced for the first time. The present-day southern landscape provides an abundance of high-quality habitat for geese so they have expanded greatly in numbers and distribution. Northern-breeding geese still maintain their historic migratory behaviour nesting in Canada’s sub-arctic regions and wintering in the USA.”

It’s important to keep in mind that the geese in Ottawa are two distinct populations, even though they look alike. Just because it looks like there are a lot of geese in the fields does not mean that all of those geese will travel up North.

(2) Another thing to keep in mind is that hunting down South can affect migrating populations. In 1995, the Atlantic population of migrating geese (the geese we see in Eeyou Istchee) hit a low of around 33,000 breeding pairs. In response to this, hunting was banned in the spring in the American states, Ontario, and parts of Quebec where the Atlantic population flies. Because of the ban, the population grew steadily until stabilizing at around 200,000 breeding pairs since the early 2000s. That is an increase of about six times the amount.

When the Atlantic population was at its low, non-Native hunters did not see the damage they were doing because the growing resident population was masking the decline in the Atlantic population. To them, it seemed like there was an unlimited number of geese in the fields. I understand that there are other factors that may be altering the migratory path making it difficult to hunt geese up North, such as climate change and disappearing eel grass, but these factors do not seem to have much of an effect on the overall Atlantic population as evidenced by their increase in numbers.

(3) I tried to find research on the effects of hunting Canada geese in the spring but had difficulty finding information, so I decided to use research I found on snow geese. Like Canada geese, snow geese feed down South (mostly southern Quebec) in the spring before migrating up North to lay their eggs. The snow geese population increased from 180,000 birds in 1980 to 1,000,000 birds in 1999. As a result, the spring hunt on snow geese was opened and has been effective in stabilizing the population at a range of 700,000 to 1,000,000 birds.

Besides stopping population growth, the spring hunt also had other effects. Before the spring hunt, the migration pattern of snow geese was unidirectional. This means that they would migrate in one direction until they reached their ultimate destination. In the years after the spring hunt, researchers starting recording backward movement in the snow geese, which meant longer flight distances, more energy expended, and less time feeding. Sometimes, the snow geese were pushed back to areas where their food had already been depleted.

Another study found that abdominal fat decreased by 29-48% and breast muscle protein decreased by 5-11% in snow geese following the opening of the spring hunt. The energy obtained from the feeding grounds in the South is essential for completing the migration and in the formation and incubation of eggs. In addition to stopping the population growth through direct kills, the spring hunt also had a secondary, and negative, effect on the snow goose’s ability to lay eggs. I understand that snow geese are a different species, but it would be interesting to see if the hunt in Ottawa is having the same consequences on our migratory geese.

(4) As I said, the number of breeding pairs has been steady since the early 2000s. So, it can be said that the goose hunt in Ottawa is not affecting the Atlantic population. However, with continued success down South, and an ever-growing Cree population, there’s reason to believe that the influx of hunters down South will be greater in the future, and with that more pressure will be put on the geese.

I wrote an email to Environment Canada asking if there was anyone monitoring the effects of the Cree goose hunt in Ottawa. A representative responded that there seemed to be little to no impact because of the steady population of geese, but it is difficult to say for sure because there is no way to monitor what’s being killed because Crees do not need to report their harvest.

To me, this creates a problem because if the Atlantic population declines in the future, we could not say for certain if the Ottawa hunt had an effect because we simply would not have the required data (number of geese killed by Cree hunters) to make that assumption. If the number of geese killed in the Ottawa fields in a given year can be obtained, you can compare that number to the number of breeding pairs in that same year up at the Ungava peninsula to see if there’s any correlation. If there is no correlation, there’s no effect on the Atlantic population. But if there is a correlation, then something should be done to limit the impact. For example, and I’m just brainstorming here, postpone the Ottawa hunt until after the migratory geese have made their way through. I’m sure that a solution that benefits everyone can be found.

I’m not calling for a stop to the Ottawa goose hunt because I cannot say with certainty that it’s having an effect, but I do think it should be closely monitored because evidence shows that hunting down South can have negative consequences on migratory populations. If Environment Canada can’t monitor us, I think we should take responsibility and monitor ourselves.

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