The history of N.D. geese

UPPER SOURIS NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE – Canada geese are one of the most abundant and recognizable waterfowl in North Dakota. It wasn’t always that way. The large birds with the telltale white cheek patch and unmistakable honking sounds that are seen and heard in the Minot region today are likely the result of early efforts by Fish and Wildlife Service employees at Upper Souris NWR.

While Canada geese were not unknown at Upper Souris during the early years of the refuge, which got its beginning in the “Dirty ’30s,” the majestic birds were not established in the area. In fact, at the Upper Souris National Wildlife Refuge in 1940, the hatching of six goslings was regarded as a historical event. It didn’t happen without a lot of effort.

J. Clark Salyer began a Canada goose program in 1938. Upper Souris followed in 1940 by obtaining a pickup load of 20 adult Canada geese from Waubay NWR in South Dakota. Those geese were wing-clipped in an effort to get their offspring to implant on the refuge. It proved to be much more complicated undertaking than biologists had hoped for.

“Canada geese have very deep homing instincts,” said Duane Anderson, Upper Souris NWR. “If they are brought in from another area there is no guarantee that they’ll stay because they have a strong homing instinct to go back where they were born.”

Predators are known to have taken a number of the early geese transplanted to Upper Souris, but biologists committed to the project continued to make adjustments. In 1944, 40 goslings were hatched at the refuge, a very small number compared to what occurs today – but certainly a badge of progress at the time.

Recordkeeping during the late ’30s and early ’40s was not as developed as it would later become in the refuge system. However, early data shows the initial effort to grow a resident flock of Canada geese at Upper Souris lost momentum. It wasn’t picked up again until 1952 when more Canada geese were imported from Bowdoin NWR in Montana, Sand Lake NWR in South Dakota and Swan Lake NWR in Missouri.

According to refuge records, construction began in the spring of 1953 on a large pen covering approximately 22 acres and providing food patches, water and nesting islands. The reference to water was apparently a series of three holding ponds constructed in an old channel of the Souris River.

Caring for the geese proved to be a very ambitious and time-consuming undertaking. When the ponds froze during the winter, Upper Souris personnel had to haul fresh water to the geese. That wasn’t the only problem. The geese refused to move inside a coop-like structure to escape the harsh elements of winter. They also refrained from utilizing hay bales stacked to provide cover from prevailing winds.

Refuge personnel later learned that by breaking the bales apart and scattering them on the ground the geese would take advantage of the straw carpet to keep warm. Even then, though, keeping a migratory bird in place during a North Dakota winter proved to be a difficult task.

In August 1954, Robert Schwab, Upper Souris NWR, wrote: “It was a very cold winter. Three geese died. One of the geese was singled out while still alive. Although in a much weakened condition, it was brought to refuge headquarters. This goose was placed in the basement of the office where the temperature was somewhat above freezing. The goose lived for only four to five hours after being brought to the office and was the last of the three to die.”

It is obvious from Schwab’s report that great effort was being exerted to make sure the Canada geese survived so they would hopefully produce offspring that would imprint on Upper Souris. However, despite such efforts, other aging reports contend little was really being done to enhance the refuge’s Canada goose program until 1957.

In 1957, refuge staff constructed an 18 acre holding pen complete with ponds. Whether or not this was a reconstructed older pen or a completely new undertaking is not entirely clear, but the pen referred to in 1957 was likely located in virtually the same spot as the one erected several years earlier.

According to records, about 40 Canada geese were imported from Swan Lake NWR in Missouri in 1957, 1958 and 1959. Again, the geese were pinioned so they would remain in the refuge holding pens. Releases started in 1960, but not exactly as planned.

According to a typewritten report, “In 1960, a local farmer left the goose pen gate open and 30 birds escaped into the wild.” The report added that additional geese were accidentally released in 1962 and that at least 27 had been killed by predators, evidence that not all was smooth sailing for establishing a resident flock.

In 1957, John Dahl had taken over from Frank Martin as Upper Souris manager. As such, he directed the Canada goose program. In a report he composed in 1959, Dahl noted that goose hunting pressure in the area of the refuge was increasing and posing a possible threat “because young birds are more vulnerable.”

Dahl mentioned something else in his report too human predation. The goose pen bordered the public fishing area downstream from Lake Darling Dam. That made the geese very visible, particularly after the leaves had fallen from the trees, making the geese tempting targets. Dahlia determined that a number of Canada geese were stolen by game thieves.

Apparently two-legged thieves weren’t the only problem encountered by the geese being held at the refuge location. According to Dahlia, large numbers of foxes and hundreds of raccoons and skunks were removed from the area of the goose pens during a three-year period.

Nevertheless, those obstacles continued to be overcome and the learning process about Canada geese continued. One item noted by Dahl in his 1959 report was that, “During the winter when the birds are kept in the winter holding pens, they are fed a mixture of small grains consisting of wheat, barley, oats and corn. We also manage to secure greens in Minot which are fed to the birds about every other day. Although the greens are frozen the birds seem to relish them and they prefer them to corn and other grains.”

The “greens” were a mixture of lettuce, cabbage and celery donated by Minot grocers who must have been as interested in seeing the Canada goose program succeed as were those at the refuge. It was also learned that removing corn from the cob was not necessary. One refuge worker observed that the geese were quite capable of removing individual pieces of corn from the cob, a conclusion that undoubtedly saved a lot of work.

“It was a labor-intensive program that took a lot of time and effort,” said Anderson. “But it was a success. As a result the landscape has a lot of birds on it right now. When we look at the number of birds at Upper Souris, other refuges and the state itself, their homing instinct definitely brought them back to the area.”

By 1962, the number of free-flying Canada geese at Upper Souris numbered 250. Thirty nesting pairs produced 110 goslings that year. No further importation of Canada geese would be necessary. Emphasis switched from pen-raising birds to providing them with good habitat, sufficient nesting structures and predator control.

“Over my career I spent a lot of time with Canada goose management. We spent a lot of time with nesting structures, haybales, baskets, anything we could put out,” said Anderson. “We spent time monitoring the success of the hatch. The state of North Dakota and the Fish and Wildlife Service have well exceeded the goal of having a certain amount of geese in the state.”

Mike Johnson, North Dakota Game and Fish Department migratory waterfowl biologist, worked extensively with Canada geese earlier his career. According to Johnson, the only Canada geese in North Dakota were those raised at National Wildlife Refuges. In 1972, said Johnson, with the help of the Northern Prairie Research Center in Jamestown, NDG&F participated in releasing Canada geese throughout the state.

“Since the summer of 1993, when all the water came, the population has skyrocketed,” said Johnson. “Today they are breeding across the state and have become overabundant.”

A high population of Canada geese has led to liberal hunting seasons today. Limits are at an all-time high as efforts are under way to reduce the population in certain areas.

“They’ve established themselves. We don’t need nesting structures anymore,” noted Anderson. “Basically we just watch what they’re doing on their own. We don’t manage to the extent that we did in prior years.”