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Keywords:

  • agriculture land;
  • greater snow geese;
  • habitat use;
  • population increase;
  • wetland

Abstract

The North American greater snow goose population has increased dramatically during the last 40 years. We evaluated whether refuge creation, changes in land use on the wintering and staging grounds, and climate warming have contributed to this expansion by affecting the distribution, habitat use, body condition, and migration phenology of birds. We also reviewed the effects of the increasing population on marshes on the wintering grounds, along the migratory routes and on the tundra in summer. Refuges established before 1970 may have contributed to the initial demographic increase. The most important change, however, was the switch from a diet entirely based on marsh plants in spring and winter (rhizomes of Scirpus/Spartina) to one dominated by crops (corn/young grass shoots) during the 1970s and 1980s. Geese now winter further north along the US Atlantic coast, leading to reduced hunting mortality. Their migratory routes now include portions of southwestern Québec where corn production has increased exponentially. Since the mid-1960s, average temperatures have increased by 1–2.4°C throughout the geographic range of geese, which may have contributed to the northward shift in wintering range and an earlier migration in spring. Access to spilled corn in spring improved fat reserves upon departure for the Arctic and may have contributed to a high fecundity. The population increase has led to intense grazing of natural wetlands used by geese although these habitats are still largely undamaged. The foraging in fields allowed the population to exceed limits imposed by natural marshes in winter and spring, but also prevented permanent damage because of their overgrazing.