Spring Goose Hunting in North Dakota

March 24, 2009 by  

By Doug Leier

Snow geese building in North Dakota.

Snow geese building in North Dakota.

North Dakota’s spring snow goose conservation season is in progress, but since the birds are just beginning to arrive, it’s a good time to reflect on the past five years of this recent hunting opportunity.

The spring conservation season on light geese was one of several responses to an elevated population of breeding birds that have been ruining their own nesting grounds. Since the early 1970s the Mid-Continent Light Goose population – those birds that nest in the arctic and migrate through North Dakota is spring and fall – has more than doubled.

As this population has increased, more and more birds at arctic breeding colonies means less food for everyone. Snow geese are grazers and adults and newly hatched young depend on new growth of sedges and grasses. On many breeding grounds the sedges and grasses are gone before eggs start to hatch. Adult geese have to march their goslings sometimes miles to find the food they need. Most of the little geese don’t make it.

Waterfowl managers recognized the breeding ground problem many years ago and regulations have been relaxed to promote as much fall harvest as possible. Daily and possessions limits increased and seasons became longer, but still the snow goose population kept growing.

Spring hunting first began in 1999 as a management action designed to further increase the snow goose harvest.

The spring season – officially called a conservation order – combined with liberal fall regulations, has apparently helped to level off the snow goose population growth rate, but the population remains high, according to Mike Johnson, North Dakota Game and Fish Department waterfowl biologist.

For all states that authorize a light goose conservation order, the spring harvest has increased substantially since the first one in 1999. In that year, hunters bagged 341,000 light geese during the conservation order. Add in the 1998-99 regular and special seasons and the total U.S. light goose take was about 1.07 million birds.

During the same period in 1999-2000, the U.S. harvest was about 1.4 million birds, a number that international waterfowl biologists feel will start reducing snow goose numbers.

That overall harvest has remained relatively stable since 2000, but hunters are starting to kill more birds in the spring and fewer during regular fall and winter seasons. For instance, the North American light goose harvest during the conservation order in 2003 was about 653,000, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates. The total snow goose kill in 2002-03, the last season for which complete statistics are available, was about 1.3 million birds.

While the North American spring snow goose take has been on the increase, in North Dakota the numbers look like a roller coaster.

When analyzing the first years of the spring conservation season biologists must take many factors into account. Simply comparing a spring hunt to a traditional fall hunt in terms of success is not accurate.

For starters, the migration and bird reaction to weather conditions differ. During fall, snow geese in North Dakota tend to follow a more predictable path depending on water, weather and food supply.

The return trip north in spring can vary considerably, but one constant is the birds’ migration response to snow cover. For example, two years ago, snow pack in South Dakota was considerably heavier than in North Dakota. As spring melted away the majority of snow up north, the geese lingered in central South Dakota.

White fronts and snow geese: identification between species is important as the season on white-fronts is closed

White fronts and snow geese: identification between species is important as the season on white-fronts is closed

When the birds finally could start moving north, they discovered a landscape free of snow and moved through North Dakota quickly, providing limited hunting opportunities along the way.

The varied migration patterns have led to extreme fluctuation in hunter numbers and success. In 1999, North Dakota had 6,300 spring hunters, compared to 1,260 in 2001, and back up to 2,300 last year. Hunter take varied from 35,000 one year to 3,500 the next. All these together to create an unpredictable outlook, but for some hunters that’s the draw for the spring conservation season.

The future

No one can accurately predict the future with any degree of confidence, especially when it comes to fish and wildlife populations. Biologists and hunters alike, however, will continue to strive for a snow goose population balanced with habitat needs and availability.

2004 regulations

The following regulations apply for North Dakota’s spring conservation season.

• The season runs through May 11.

• Shooting hours are from one-half hour before sunrise to one-half hour after sunset.

• Light geese include snow geese, both white and blue phases, and Ross’ geese.

• The entire state is open.

• Electronic and recorded calls, as well as shotguns capable of holding more than three shells, may be used to take light geese during this season.

• Non-toxic shot is required for hunting all light geese statewide.

• No waterfowl rest areas are designated for the spring season. Hunters should note that private land within waterfowl rest areas closed last fall may be posted closed to hunting.

• There is no daily bag limit or possession limit.

• Residents need either the following 2003-04 or 2004-05 licenses: hunting, fishing, and furbearer certificate, small game license, and a general game and habitat license; or a sportsmen’s license. 2004-05 licenses are currently available only from the Game and Fish Department’s Bismarck office, the Department’s website at www.discovernd.com/gnf, or by calling 800-406-6409.

• Nonresidents need a 2004 spring light goose season license. The cost is $50 and the license is good statewide (zones do not apply to the spring season). Licenses are available at the Department’s Bismarck office or website, and by calling 800-406-6409. Nonresidents who hunt the spring season remain eligible to buy a fall season license. The spring season does not count against the 14-day fall restriction.

• A federal duck stamp is not required of either residents or nonresidents.

• All 2004 spring goose hunters must register with the Harvest Information Program; call toll-free, 888-634-4798; or, hunters purchasing a 2004-05 license from the Department’s office or website, as well as the 800-406-6409 number, will receive a HIP number at that time. Hunters who were HIP registered in fall 2003 must register again for the spring light goose season, but this HIP number is good for the fall season as well, so spring hunters should save it to record on their fall license.

• Driving off established roads and trails is strongly discouraged during this hunt because of the likelihood of soft, muddy conditions.


2 Comments on "Spring Goose Hunting in North Dakota"

  1. Jack Heesch on Mon, 1st Feb 2010 9:40 am 

    We are looking for a Spring goose hunt for the last week in March, 2010.
    It looks like we would have 4-6 guys. We are Wis. duck hunters and have never hunted waterfoul out-of-state.
    Please advise!!

  2. admin on Mon, 1st Feb 2010 10:21 am 

    Jack, I really don’t know any reputable guides that run in North Dakota. You should look into SD, a lot of them running there.

Tell us what you're thinking...
and oh, if you want a pic to show with your comment, go get a gravatar!

Human Verification: In order to verify that you are a human and not a spam bot, please enter the answer into the following box below based on the instructions contained in the graphic.