Hard year on tundra
WATSON -- Crawling over permafrost at four to five miles an hour, the train ride from Thompson, Manitoba, Canada, to Churchill on the edge of Hudson Bay is an 18- to 22-hour endurance run in the best of times.
It was the worst of times when Dave Trauba boarded. Rumors about water covering the tracks proved true and it eventually took a helicopter and plane ride for Trauba to make it from the halted train to his destination.
He arrived at an isolated camp miles outside of Churchill on June 14. He and those who accompanied him spent the next 2½ days shoveling paths in the snow to open up camp.
"It was the latest spring anyone could recall,'' said Trauba.
It was also a bust year for the geese that Trauba came to find on their nesting grounds.
Trauba, manager of the Lac qui Parle wildlife management area in western Minnesota, devoted the last two weeks of June to an annual chore on the tundra west of Hudson Bay. He and others slogged across the tundra to assess the reproductive success of the Eastern Prairie Population of Canada geese that nest here.
The late spring and snowpack that had stopped the train had also forced millions of geese to stack up and wait more than a hundred miles away from their nesting grounds. When the geese finally arrived at what is known as the Nester One study area outside of Cape Churchill, most were too hungry and weak to build nests and raise broods, said Trauba.
There are lots of ways to measure how bad the nesting season was, but this tells the story as well as any. In more than three decades of study, a square kilometer of nesting ground will produce an average of 33 goslings.
This year, the number was four.
Bust years like this one aren't uncommon. Conditions in 2004 produced a similar bust, said Trauba.
In the past, the immediate reaction was to reduce the harvest quota and shorten the season at the Lac qui Parle refuge, which the EPP geese use as a feeding and resting stop on their migration south.
This year, hunters will see no change, said Trauba. Hunters will again enjoy a 41-day, split season and the two-bird limit remains unchanged.
The season will run Oct. 15-18 and re-open Oct. 24 and continue through Nov. 29.
The later dates are purposely designed to accommodate the trend towards later migrations by the geese.
Trauba said the changes reflect a decision within the Minnesota DNR to use three-year averages, rather than single year nesting success in setting the seasons.
The more liberal strategy also takes into account the reality that populations of giant Canada geese continue to be large.
Hunters at Lac qui Parle are not likely to notice that this was a bust year on the nesting grounds, according to Trauba. The EPP flock is still sizeable and hunters should again be treated to the sites and excited sounds that only tens of thousands of geese can make.
The hunting might be more challenging. This year's flock will be predominately mature adults, and they are less susceptible to hunters than young birds, said Trauba.
He also suspects that the mature adults will delay their migration south absent the burden of young birds to tend.
There was a time when the arrival of the geese at Lac qui Parle was very predictable, and Minnesota hunters virtually had first crack at the flock and young birds. The birds would typically leave their nesting grounds, rest and feed at the Oak Hammock preserve in Manitoba, and wing their way to Lac qui Parle with the cold winds of autumn like checkers jumping squares.
But patterns are changing. The birds are migrating later, and they don't always follow the same road map south. Trauba said he believes that the burgeoning population of giant Canada geese taking autumn refuge around Winnipeg serves to decoy many of the EPP geese.
There's good reason to believe the birds are spreading out and lingering longer in the north.
Nonetheless, the Lac qui Parle area remains a critical link in their pathway south, and provides hunting opportunities hard to match anywhere. For hunters this year, a bust nesting season should still offer the best of times come autumn.