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Byline: Mike Stahlberg The Register-Guard

CORVALLIS - Waterfowl hunters Chad Curry and Rocky Erner bagged their limit of ducks in a couple of hours Sunday morning, and watched many a gaggle of geese pass within easy shotgun range of their floating blind on the Willamette River.

But, like most hunters who come to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's goose "check stations," the two Albany men shot only two geese apiece, well short of their allowable daily limit of eight.

"We had a thousand birds come in on us," Erner said. "Flock after flock after flock. And every single one of them would be a cackler."

State regulations specify that a hunter's daily bag may include only two cackling geese, or "cacklers," the most numerous of seven subspecies of Canada goose wintering in the Willamette Valley. As recently as 2004-05, hunters were allowed to take four cackling geese per day.

For many hunters, the two-cackler limit is the most frustrating aspect of goose management in northwest Oregon, which sometimes resembles a game of "fox and goose," the childhood game of tag in which everyone seems to be running off in a different direction.

"The cackler limit is really the issue right now," said Dennis Shelton of Corvallis, who also checked in a pair of cackling geese Sunday. "Because 90 percent of what you see out there are cacklers."

The ODFW estimates cacklers account for 150,000 of the 250,000 geese of all types wintering in the Willamette Valley.

Indeed, there are far more geese here than either state wildlife managers or farmers - whose crops suffer significant damage from huge flocks of grass-gobbling geese that descend on fields like a plague of locusts - would like to see. An approved goose damage control plan calls for a maximum of 130,000 geese in the valley.

So why restrict the cackler harvest?

The answer to that question - as with most others involving waterfowl management - is found not on the ground in Oregon but in the fine print of international migratory bird treaties.

Cackling geese are a source of "subsistence hunting" for native peoples in Canada and Alaska and, as such, are afforded protection from federal waterfowl managers who give high priority to protecting native food supplies.

"We've got to respect those cultural issues. I understand that," Shelton said. "But I don't know how cutting a limit of cacklers in half here translates in terms of subsistence hunting in Canada or Alaska. ... The science behind it is just not clear."

Also not clear is why cackling geese suddenly moved to Oregon from California.

Pacific Flyway population surveys show only 200 cackling geese were counted in Oregon in 1980, when 127,200 wintered in California. By 1998, the ratios had almost reversed - 139,000 cacklers were tallied in Oregon, just 9,600 in California.

The relocation of the cacklers' wintering grounds "changed the whole dynamic" of goose management in Oregon, said Brad Bales, the ODFW's migratory game bird coordinator.

"California would love to have 'em back," Bales said, "and I would love for California to have them back."

Grass seed farmers in the Willamette Valley would love it if cacklers were not allowed to settle in like so many unwelcome in-laws.

Hunting pressure that keeps the birds moving around instead of focusing on one field reduces the crop damage, and farmers would like to see more hunting pressure, said Tim Bernasek, general counsel of the Oregon Farm Bureau.

"I've heard growers express frustration that there just aren't as many hunters out there," he said.

But goose hunting in most of the Willamette Valley agricultural area is complicated almost beyond belief, due to another variety of goose, the dusky Canada goose.

Duskies are a dark-breasted subspecies that breeds in the Copper River delta area of Alaska and winters in the Willamette Valley. It has one of the smallest populations of any goose in North America, fluctuating from 12,000 to 25,000 over the past 30 years. The latest official population estimate was 16,000 to 17,000.

Hunters are not allowed to target duskies, which are similar in appearance to several legal subspecies of geese.

To protect the dusky, the ODFW requires all goose hunters in the Northwest Oregon Permit Goose Zone (generally, the Willamette Valley west of I-5 and north of Crow Road) pass a goose identification test. They must also obtain a special permit, and take any geese harvested to a specified check-in station for the area in which they're hunting.

Goose hunting in the permit zone is allowed only three days a week (Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays) during goose season because the ODFW cannot afford to operate the check stations every day.

This season, for the first time, the ODFW required all goose hunters in the entire Willamette Valley to take and pass the ID test, which is now available online.

"We wanted to make sure hunters outside the permit area are aware of the situation, and hopefully they'll show some voluntary restraint," said the ODFW's Bales. "That beats the option of putting the entire Willamette Valley in the permit zone."

At the check-in stations, birds are inspected and tagged by ODFW personnel, who measure bill length and width, leg lengths and feather colors to determine exactly what subspecies of goose is at hand. Age and sex data is also collected.

Not surprisingly, hunters trying to ID birds on the wing sometimes make mistakes. The ODFW puts season quotas - generally five to 10 birds - for each of nine hunt areas in the permit zone and for each of a three-hunt period. All goose hunting in an area is halted when that quota is hit. Any hunter who takes a dusky loses his Northwest Oregon permit.

Many hunters pass up shots at birds rather than risk shooting the wrong kind of goose.

"Cacklers are the easiest to distinguish from the duskies," Shelton said. "Not only are they much smaller, but the sound of their honk is much more high-pitched and it's easy, even in the fog, to identify them.

"But anything bigger than a cackler is a potential dusky. Many of those are shootable birds, but they're more difficult to distinguish, so they get by you ... you basically just pass those up most of the time."

Many people are apparently passing up on waterfowl hunting entirely. The estimated number of active adult waterfowl hunters in Oregon - based on waterfowl stamp sales and Hunter Information Program permits - declined from nearly 50,000 in 1970 to about 18,500 in 2004 (of which only 11,400 said they hunted geese).

But those who hunt are finding it very productive. Statewide, the goose harvest in 2004 totalled about 70,300 birds. In 1970, the Oregon harvest was estimated at 62,500 geese.

Unfortunately for those who farm in the Northwest Oregon Permit Goose Zone, however, most of the goose harvest occurs elsewhere in the state. The permit zone harvest over the last 10 years averaged 8,800 birds.
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Title Annotation:Recreation; Hunters, farmers and wildlife managers are losing battle to control geese in NW Oregon
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jan 9, 2007
Previous Article:Cache a priceless treasure.
Next Article:Fern Ridge on ODFW docket.

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