Will February’s warmth bring early birds north?

Bemidji, Minn. — The annual spring migration of snow geese – one of the grandest wildlife spectacles in nature – has begun in earnest, with birds as of Tuesday already showing up in parts of  southwestern Minnesota and the Dakotas as unseasonably warm weather pushed the snow line north.

But if you want to hunt snows, blues, and Ross’ geese during the special spring season in Minnesota, you’ll have to wait until the season opens March 1, a date the Minnesota DNR will look at changing for next spring.

“We’ve basically had the same opening date since this started, but I don’t know why we wouldn’t change it – there’s nothing stopping us from doing so,” said Steve Cordts, waterfowl specialist with the Minnesota DNR, adding the special spring season is already open in the Dakotas. “It’s early, but we’ve already seen birds showing up in extreme southwestern Minnesota.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service authorized the first-ever spring light goose hunt in 1999 to trim the burgeoning mid-continent flock of lesser snow geese (snows, blues, and Ross’ geese). Technically called a “conservation order,” the spring hunt was and is designed to keep the massive flock from destroying its fragile breeding grounds in the Canadian arctic.

Waterfowl biologists estimate the continental population is somewhere between 15 million and 25 million birds – a figure, they concede, that’s difficult to determine precisely but which likely will continue to rise. Every year since 1999, waterfowl hunters from Minnesota and elsewhere have been chasing snows and blues in both the Mississippi and Central flyways.

Hunting success doesn’t come easy, because snow geese are extremely wary birds.

“They’re definitely tough birds to hunt, especially in spring when fields are muddy and adult birds are migrating in large flocks,” Cordts said.

In Minnesota, participation over the years has been light, given that migrating spring snow geese typically only show up in a handful of Minnesota counties bordering the Dakotas. According to Cordts, only 1,100 special light goose permits were sold last year, and harvest rarely exceeds 4,000 birds annually.

“We’ve never much sold over 1,500 permits,” he said.

Meanwhile, the spring migration, thanks to higher-than-normal temperatures, southern winds, and rain, is roughly three weeks ahead of schedule, according to waterfowl managers, with snows and blues staggered as far south as Arkansas and as far north as North Dakota.

“The migration is definitely ahead of schedule, but I’d expect more snow and cold, which will push these birds back and forth for a number of weeks,” said John Devney, vice president of U.S. policy for the Delta Waterfowl Foundation in Bismarck, N.D. “There’s still plenty of time for hunters to get out there. A receding snow line is one thing, but these birds need access to open water to sit, and there’s very little of that in the Dakotas right now.”

According to the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, the spring migration tends to unfold farther east in the state than in autumn.

“In North Dakota, hunters are going to find ample sheet water this year,” Devney said. “I suspect it’s going to be a sloppy mess out there.

“I know guys are eager to get out and get after them, but the first wave of birds is all adults … and they’re very difficult to hunt,” he said. “Guys can afford to wait for the juveniles. There’s plenty of time.”

For more information about the spring light goose season in Minnesota, visit www.dnr.state.mn.us

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