Spring has come early this year in the southern half of Quebec. And that means one thing for James Bay. The geese are coming—lots of them.
Goose numbers in the Atlantic flyway have been rising steadily for a few years. Geese are doing nicely because of a decline in hunting and new bird sanctuaries along migrating routes through the U.S.
They also have new feeding grounds due to the expansion of intensive farming in the U.S.
But all is not well. The Canadian Wildlife Service says less Canada geese are migrating through James Bay to their traditional nesting grounds in the Ungava Peninsula.
In 1994, 40,086 pairs were observed in a survey conducted north of the 57th parallel. That’s down from 91,301 pairs in 1993.
Another survey will be done this summer. But already the Canadian Wildlife Service is pressuring over-worked CTA officers to monitor the Cree goose take and even wants Crees to reduce their harvest.
“There is small productivity and in some years no productivity at all. It’s far from what the species can achieve,” says Charles Drolet, a spokesman for the wildlife service.
“We are quite a few years into that trend,” said Drolet, who is also a member of the Hunting, Fishing and Trapping Coordinating Committee, set up under the James Bay Agreement.
Is the Canadian Wildlife Service jumping the gun by calling for a reduced Cree hunt? Andrew Rupert, the CTA Fur Officer in Chisasibi, says that in recent years geese have largely stopped their northward journeys around Chisasibi and the nearby reservoirs. As a result many geese aren’t showing up on the survey, which is conducted further north.
“They don’t go up north,” said Rupert. “I don’t know what they’re eating. That’s something to worry about.”
One reason for the change in behaviour may be global warming caused in large part by pollution, says Dr. Bob Jefferies, professor of botany at the University of Toronto.
Since about 1970, the average temperature in North America has gone up by 1.5 degrees Celsius. But rising temperatures in some regions mean falling temperatures in others. The north part of the Ungava Peninsula has seen a fall of 1.5 to 2 degrees over the last 10 years.
The result is geese start migrating earlier but get held up by colder weather as they move north through Quebec and Ontario. That means many more geese just stay in James Bay in early spring and all of them feed on a limited supply of marsh plants.
“At that stage, there is no new growth of plants in the wetlands. It’s too early in the season. So they grub for the roots and the underground parts of wetland plants which are really summer feeding plants,” said Jefferies, who has studied snow geese on Akimiski Island and the Cape Churchill Peninsula.
“We’re left with rather bare and barren land that is no longer productive, and a declining weight and survivability of geese,” said Jefferies. In years when spring comes early in the south, like this year, the damage is worse, he added.
“When there is a steep temperature gradiant between Baffin Island and the southern part of James Bay, in those years you see the most damage.”
No more Canada geese?: prophesy But key questions about what’s going on remain unanswered. And that’s no thanks to the Canadian Wildlife Service.
Drolet attended CTA general assemblies in 1993 and 1994, and heard the Cree concerns. He was asked for $25,000 to pay a part-time coordinator and local fur officers to monitor the goose harvest The request was turned down.
The James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement calls for a study of geese involving the Crees. Such a study has never been conducted.
“This cost is much beyond what we can invest,” said Drolet, who added he did not know the CTA still wants the funds.
“I think we need to really look at it,” said CTA president Edward Gilpin.
“We’re getting less and less of the smaller Canada geese. For some odd reason, there does seem to be a decline.”
But without extra money, over-worked CTA fur officers will have a hard time monitoring goose numbers, especially in larger communities, said Gilpin.
And conservation officials won’t get anywhere if Crees aren’t involved in the study, he said.
“Crees have been studied and studied and studied, and that turns them off,” added Gilpin.
“They don’t get any feedback, and if they do they see it in the papers blaming Crees for the problem. So that makes people hesitate.”
Last spring, Gilpin managed to set up a smaller-scale monitoring project along with the local fur officer in Eastmain. Out of 142 hunters, 140 participated. They reported harvesting 10,000 geese.
That’s the same number as was killed in 1975 in the same community, according to figures from the Canadian Wildlife Service. The difference was in 1975 there were half as many hunters.
Gilpin said the geese need to be studied to find out what’s going on.
Elders say there never used to be Canada geese along the James Bay east coast, Gilpin said. He said there is a prophesy that the Canada geese could disappear entirely in the area, to be replaced by snow geese.
Interestingly, Dr. Jefferies said the snow goose population is in fact exploding—at a rate of eight per cent a year.
Jefferies also called for Crees to be involved in the study of changing goose migration patterns.
“These are incredibly big issues and they’re at the cutting edge of climatology and bio-climatology. But because of a lack of a long-term database, we don’t know if it’s just a flip in weather patterns that will right itself,” he said.
“In this regard, the traditional knowledge which Native peoples have is very useful.”