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Even the weather channel is reporting snow geese on the move....

Warmer weather brings snow... geese
Thu, Mar. 13, 2003 9:38 AM ET

By the Associated Press

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) All it takes is a few days of mild temperatures and southerly breezes to start the clouds rolling north. Clouds of snow geese that is.

The annual mid-continent migration has pushed as far as northwest Missouri. If this week's forecast holds out, wave after wave of the light geese will touch down in Iowa on their way back home to the Arctic coastlines of Hudson Bay.

But it's not 'home, sweet home' by any means. Years of overpopulation have destroyed one-third of their home range. The rest of it is in serious trouble, too.

That's why waterfowl hunters in Iowa, and across the range of the snows have enjoyed a rare spring hunting season for each of the last few years. And this year's bonus shooting is about to begin.

"Daytime temperatures in the 40s and we are seeing snow melting," observes Guy Zenner, waterfowl biologist for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. "Snow geese will push the snow line north. As we see some sheet water appearing, we are going to see fair numbers of birds moving in the next two weeks."

That migration is the feathered equivalent of watching the dam burst. Hundreds of thousands of snow geese pour into the Riverton Wildlife Refuge and nearby wetlands through the Missouri River corridor. The cacophony of sound they make rings in your ears, even after you, or they, leave.

Those sheer numbers are the reason hunters have an extended season. A 'conservation order' from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tacks on a few more weeks. It also removes key hunting restrictions, to encourage a larger harvest. Electronic calls are allowed. Shotgun magazine 'plugs' are removed. The daily bag limit is 20 'snows,' with no season possession limit.

"Snow geese have reached a level where they are destroying much of their breeding habitat up on the tundra," explains Zenner. "Colonies have grown to very large sizes -- up to a half million nesting pairs in one place -- destroying miles upon miles of coastline.

"The conservation order allows hunters more tools to take additional snow geese as they migrate north."

Wildlife biologists fear a population crash, if the numbers don't stabilize. The snow goose glut is denuding the landscape -- plants are overgrazed and then 'grubbed out' by the root to provide a little more nourishment to geese competing for food.

The saline nature of the marsh means extremely slow recovery. Some say decades, others a century, will pass before the habitat is restored, if the damage would stop immediately.

The harvest has increased. Zenner says it's a little premature, yet, to gauge the success of the liberal hunting option.

"We have seen a continental harvest of 1.3 million on these light geese. That is what we feel is necessary to get the population to begin to come down. The Iowa harvest has been off and on, largely depending on the spring weather."

"Two weeks ago, we had birds for a day. A couple weeks prior to that, about a thousand showed up," recalls Carl Priebe, wildlife biologist for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources in southwest Iowa. "Until we show open water, though, they feed here, then go back south to roost."

When the waves of snow geese do start ebbing through, hunters need to be ready for it.

"Hunters need to be scouting now," stresses Zenner. "The birds roost on any open water, even an opening in a larger iced up lake, for instance. They feed in the fields, though. Scouting those feeding locations is essential."

Zenner says large sets of decoys -- as in hundreds, not dozens -- are also a big plus.

When the geese come, it is traditionally through western Iowa. However, reports from the Mississippi River corridor indicate smaller pockets of geese might migrate through Iowa's 'east coast' this spring. Weather-watching waterfowlers want warm fronts and winds from the south -- just the opposite of their dream fall forecast -- for spring hunting opportunities.
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