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Canadian Projects

Canadian Blog

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!)

Shifting Baseline Syndrome and White Geese

How Questionable Wildlife Management Devours Tax Dollars

Published 01/30/14

In Canada, we have a federal government infamously downloading or cutting off a myriad of valid environmental research programs—inconvenient facts being an impediment to what’s really important to the right-wing ideologues now in power—while ignoring one area of waste that is quite disposable, but oh, ever so convenient if you don’t mind a total, absurdly wasteful sham.

The Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS) has come out with its latest “Population Status of Migratory Birds in Canada” and is now vilifying a species that is, I’d guess, unknown to 99 percent plus of federal politicians, or other Canadians. The Ross’s goose is nearly identical to a somewhat better known species (although I suspect still unfamiliar to most Canadians): the snow goose. These are both white geese with black wing tips. The snow goose actually comes in two color patterns, called morphs. A minority are dark brownish-grey with white heads and light blue-grey wing patches, and are known colloquially as “blue geese.” They were once thought to be a separate species. The Ross’s shows this “blue” version only very rarely. Otherwise, the Ross’s resembles the snow but is smaller, with a much shorter, stubbier beak with a kind of blue-grey, warty-looking patch around the nostrils. Even the geese can get confused and hybrids occur.

The snow geese are also divided into “lesser snow geese” which breed in the central to western Arctic, and the wee bit larger “greater snow geese” of the eastern Arctic. The tendency is to “lump” them all as “white geese” for the sake of “management.”

The snow goose was already thoroughly vilified by employment of something called the “shifting baseline syndrome.” That phrase was coined by fishery biologist Daniel Pauly, who used it in 1995 in reference to fish management (another tax-funded wildlife management disaster; remember the northern cod?) but applicable to a wide range of wildlife management policies. “Essentially,” Pauly wrote, “this syndrome has arisen because each generation of fisheries scientists accepts as a baseline the stock and species composition that occurred at the beginning of their careers, and uses this to evaluate changes.”

Around the same time, I said the same thing, only about waterfowl biologists with regard to snow geese. A tight group of (mostly) men raised shrill alarm that the white goose population had increased startlingly—there being so many that they were damaging the environment by pulling out plants by the roots, thus altering salt levels in the soil of coastal areas, to the detriment of numerous other Arctic and subarctic species. The northern ecosystem was, they said, “in peril.”

In 1998, I visited the primary research site, near Churchill, Manitoba, in company with Dr. Vernon Thomas, Department of Zoology at the University of Guelph. True, there were mud-flats where geese had eaten the vegetation, but the subarctic ecosystem seemed in no way imperiled, and the desert-like conditions suggested by the lurid prose were restricted and rarely bigger than, say, a football field. We viewed the area from the air, and then landed, and on the ground found rhizomes under even the most barren patches of soil criss-crossed with goose footprints. The region is under something called “isostatic rebound,” whereby the ground is not-so-slowly rising, adding more land as Hudson Bay retreats, in a state of continued, natural change.

I found that the original 1997 report, used to justify a massive increase in hunters’ ability to kill large numbers of “lesser” snow geese, contained a glaring error by giving an incorrect publication date for a life history study that clearly showed something that was being ignored by these waterfowl “biologists,” as surely as the fishery biologists referenced by Dr. Pauly ignored historical data about the size of fisheries (with disastrous results).

There is nothing “scientific” about ignoring data that don’t fit your theory, and this cluster of waterfowl managers wanted us all to believe that the Arctic ecosystem was in peril, only to be relieved by culling (or “harvesting”) vastly more snow geese. Goose numbers were presented as being higher than ever. Classically displaying the avian version of the shifting base syndrome, they had assumed that the conditions they had seen on their first visits to the north as young men, when the white geese were at or close to all-time lowest numbers, were the “norm;” thus, the changes they had seen as white goose numbers increased were seen as abnormal. And, as has been said of a suite of other species, the change was attributed to anthropogenic (human-caused) changes—in this case, the planting of crops that provided wintering geese in the southern U.S. more food than they had ever had before. It was called an “agricultural subsidy.” So, how much food did geese have before, say, the industrial revolution? No one even asked.

This differs from the fisheries’ version of shifting base syndrome only because so many fish species never got a chance to recover, while the snow geese did. But, in both circumstances, management decisions are based on faulty estimates of what “should” be there based on the historic record—and would be, had they been left alone.

I know this is all sort of technical, thus boring, which is why it’s so easy to waste Canadian tax money… But stay with me on this, because it is also not very hard to understand.

If these “biologists,” on government payrolls and/or various government grants or funding from NGOs in the business of supporting the entire sham, flying about the Arctic and subarctic garnering “data” to prove their point, were right, then surely early records would show low numbers of white geese. The exact opposite was true.

Most of the killing off of snow geese occurred before there was much effort or ability to count them, and long before aerial photography and other technologies for producing accurate estimates were available. But, read this quote from pioneering ornithologist Herbert W. Brandt, describing an experience in Texas, where, on March 23, 1919, he and his companions visited a marsh on the plains. “As we approached it looked as if it was covered with snow, but it proved to be thousands upon thousands of snow geese and other wild geese. Here is their winter home, coming into the great pastures at night to feed on the abundant grass. Last year for the first time known a couple of large flocks remained the entire summer.” Indeed, like small numbers of other such first-hand accounts that survive from that era, it suggests abundance comparable to, and possibly greater than, what we experience today. Brandt continues that the owner of the ranch “told us that the geese we saw were just a few left from the great winter flocks, most of them having now departed for the northland. He has seen 500 acres of solid geese, he said, just one snow bank…”

There are other such accounts, even photographs, all dutifully ignored or dismissed as “anecdotal” by the CWS. It’s important, because assuming that the various accounts were right, huge numbers of snow geese have naturally occurred before, and left no permanent damage. Indeed, in a private moment at a waterfowl conference in Memphis some years ago, a CWS waterfowl manager said to me, “Barry, it will take a good fifty years for some of that vegetation to recover.” I just looked at him. He blinked, and then said, “But that’s your point, isn’t it?”


Politicians would far, far rather scapegoat wild animals than address serious and real environmental threats. I mean, yes, the Arctic is in peril, but from a wide range of anthropogenic forces culminating in rising temperatures on average—not from a native species who has been there since the retreat of the glaciers.

Which brings us back to Ross’s geese. When I was a young child in the 1950s, it was, to me, a mystery bird: a small version of the snow geese, whose nest had not been discovered until 1938. In one of my childhood reference books, it stated, “They winter entirely in the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys of California, where they are known to gunners by the name ‘China geese’ and now enjoy absolute protection under the game laws.”

No longer. They made the mistake of trying to recover to former numbers. Those stubby little beaks of theirs are now implicated in the increased “peril” we are supposed to believe the Arctic endures at the hands, or beaks, of the white geese—even the little, once endangered Ross’s goose. The CWS has issued its “notice of intent” to designate these small geese as “overabundant.” Well… They were rare back when I was ten years old, and now they aren’t… Wow… Maybe their current numbers are unprecedented.

Well, no; not according to the always easy-to-ignore historic record. It is a fragmented record because, apart from a handful of ornithologists, no one in the 19th and early 20th centuries could identify them as anything other than, at most, puny snow geese. And yet, a knowledgeable chronicler wrote in 1928, shortly before the bird became endangered, that on its wintering ground in central California, it was “often quite common. It seems to be tamer than other species of geese which visit that region; hence many are shot for the market…” Remember, we are talking about an era that saw the elimination “for the market” or otherwise, of vast herds of bison; the extinction of our most common bird, the passenger pigeon; the elimination of huge flocks of Eskimo curlews, now extinct; the elimination of our only native parrot, the Carolina parakeet; the extinction of our only flightless birds, the spectacled cormorant and the great auk; the extinction of the Labrador duck; the extinction of the Atlantic gray whale; the extinction of the heath hen; and on and on… It was an era of mass wildlife destruction, and a small white goose who came from a place where few or no humans lived—and we thus had not learned to fear them—wouldn’t have had a chance.

Based on what happened with the snow geese when they were designated as “over abundant,” what will be wanted when the designation is given (and it will be) is absurdly extended bag limits, use of recorded calls and baits, a spring hunting season, and anything else that replaces the concept of “fair chase” or “sport” with permission to slaughter. There is the added advantage that hunters who enjoy this sort of thing (and I emphasize that many don’t) will be able to bang away at any white birds with black wing tips (hoping they exclude whooping cranes and white pelicans) without the nuisance of having to tell the Ross’s goose from the snow goose. They will be able to kill large numbers of them using bait and electronic calls, all with federal blessings.

At the time this all began, we predicted it wouldn’t work. First, there was no way hunters would or could slaughter enough snow geese to reduce their continental population to a number satisfactory to the wildlife managers: a number where their feeding showed virtually no “impact” on vegetation. In fact, many hunters were quite disgusted with the idea, and with the inevitable waste of meat if one meets the bag limits. Snow geese are not generally tasty, and we taxpayers unwittingly funded a government cook book on how to make them more palatable. A guy who shoots twenty a day is hardly going to eat all twenty!

Also, Arctic wildlife populations typically display “boom-bust” increases followed by population crashes; think lemmings, for example, and the predators who eat them. But, by knocking the top off the growth curve, one assures that the “bust” part does not happen… They don’t peak, there is no subsequent crash, and numbers stay high.

Two decades later, we have been proven to be right. As the CWS puts it, “Despite recent efforts to reduce the numbers of mid-continent Lesser Snow Geese, the population continues to grow.” But, paradoxically, that’s good news for wildlife biologists whose ineptitudes are so seldom challenged; their work, their grants, are assured into the future.

And, even if a government infamous for cutting funding to work that raises alarms about the environment figures it all out – which is highly unlikely – well, they will happily keep signing the cheques so they can say they are funding conservation. I mean, hey; you could address, say, climate change, but that might mean limiting, say, the Alberta oil sands, or proposed pipelines, or Arctic resource exploration… So, you can see the dilemma. It’s easier to kill geese.

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