by Barry Kent MacKay,
Senior Program Associate
Born Free USA's Canadian Representative
Barry is an artist, both with words and with paint. He has been associated with our organization for nearly three decades and is our go-to guy for any wildlife question. He knows his animals — especially birds — and the issues that affect them. His blogs will give you just the tip of his wildlife-knowledge iceberg, so be sure to stay and delve deeper into his Canadian Project articles. If you like wildlife and reading, Barry's your man. (And we're happy to have him as part of our team, too!)
Kill the Geese to Save the Planet?
A colleague suggested I try to write a blog about defining “conservation.” It can’t be done. The word is so broadly applied that it is essentially meaningless.
Indeed, the previous day another colleague and I were discussing the latest iteration of the “conservation order” that has seen efforts made to kill off huge numbers of snow geese and Ross’s geese. Depending on where you live on the continent, bag limits have been increased to an absurd 25 birds, no limit on possession, spring as well as fall hunts, no limits on the number of shells allowed per gun, use of electronic calls OK’d ... just about everything short of strafing flocks with napalm has been legalized, all in the name of “conservation.”
The claim is that these geese, who nest in Arctic and subarctic tundra, have increased to numbers never previously known. Because they uproot the plants they eat, they leave behind muddy patches that, along coastal shorelines, build up salt levels that preclude re-growth of the native vegetation, perhaps for decades, if not longer. The Arctic became an “ecosystem in peril” in the eyes of the wildlife managers and various other species of Arctic wildlife were subsequently doomed. But when asked, these earnest “scientists,” with their sophisticated aerial photographs, computer analysis and various charts and diagrams, couldn’t name a species that really would suffer a statistically significant decline overall as a result of these changes.
No one questions the changes, but change happens in the natural world. Outside of museum dioramas, nature is not static and the Arctic is particularly known for vast swings in population sizes of wildlife as well as extremes in climate and conditions. Only wildlife managers want it to be static, reflecting some “ideal” that suits their subjective feeling for what is right, although they’d never put it that way. They have a good thing going, “they” being an integrated and interchangeable assembly of government “biologists,” “conservation” organizations, and manufacturers of waterfowl hunting equipment all singing from the same hymnal.
In order for the whole sham to hang together it is essential to ignore or discredit a body of historical literature that indicates that the numbers snow geese are not unprecedented, and that while the smaller Ross’s goose, once considered endangered, is probably at an all-time high number, there were observations of snow geese from the 19th and early 20th century that suggest they were at least once before at least as abundant as they are now. The Arctic survived the geese then; it can survive them now.
But as I say, that is all ignored. We’re asked to believe that the “agricultural subsidy” of nutriment-rich crops available to wintering geese (including those planted by the U.S. government to encourage waterfowl winter survival) have increased the ability of the environment to support snow geese over what was there in more primal, pre-industrial America. There isn’t any evidence, of course; there does not have to be. In wildlife management, facts don’t count.
Back when my colleagues and I fought the good fight on behalf of the geese, one of our opponents, Fred Cooke, did have one opinion I shared. Put very simply he essentially believed that it wasn’t mathematically possible for hunters to kill enough snow geese to make a difference. I also pointed out that when a population was rebounding, or increasing to fill new territory, if you knocked off the top of the growth curve, numbers would continue to increase to fill available habitat.
That was all years ago. Last month word came out that there were more snow geese than before. The “solution”? More killing, of course. The definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing while expecting different results. It seems to define wildlife management, as well.
What it does not define is conservation. Meanwhile, with each passing day there are new dire reports indicating dramatic changes in the Arctic, with increasing loss of sea ice as the climate, on average, warms faster than was predicted in the early days of global warming and already has been reduced more than ever in recorded history. Native species dependent on sea ice, including the iconic polar bear, but also the ringed seal and other species, are at increasing risk. There is a horrific threat that as the permafrost melts not only will it damage human infrastructure at great social cost, but far more seriously can release vast amounts of methane, a major greenhouse gas, thus triggering dire global results.
While it is too late to reverse the trend, just slowing it would constitute true conservation, but would require efforts of great commitment and complexity. It’s much easier to shoot off guns and call it conservation.