A couple decades ago, drivers approaching Olive Branch or Miller City in Alexander County were greeted by signs proclaiming, “Horseshoe Lake, Goose Hunting Capital of the World.”
Public hunting was available at Horseshoe Lake State Fish and Wildlife Area. Commercial clubs were located just beyond state-controlled property. At that time, the Canada goose truly was golden.
It wasn’t unusual for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources weekly aerial survey to report upwards of a half-million Canada geese in the region stretching from Rend to Horseshoe Lake.
Those days are long gone. The last aerial survey, conducted in the first week of December, showed there were just 1,975 Canada geese in all of Southern Illinois.
For a variety of reasons, milder winters, changing agricultural practices and abundance of open water, Canada geese are simply not coming south any more.
“When they arrive in Wisconsin in October, they kind of spill over into the Chicago Area, the Fox River Valley, and they are there until the end of the hunting season,” said Dan Holm, a waterfowl biologist with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. “Some are still making it down to Southern Illinois; the greater number are staying in northern Illinois.”
Other areas of Illinois are experiencing the same trend.
“West Central Illinois, Fulton and Knox counties, we see maybe not the same magnitude, but there are certainly fewer Canada geese,” Holm said. “It’s a similar pattern, just not at the same magnitude. There are less and they are later arriving.”
Some of the hunting clubs still exist, but they have changed management practices, now geared toward attracting ducks.
In the meantime, Southern Illinois is attracting more snow geese and white-fronted geese. The white-fronted goose, known affectionately as speckle-bellies by waterfowl hunters, have seen their numbers increase dramatically over the past few years.
Seeing or hearing a “specK’ used to be an anomaly. No more.
The Dec. 6 survey indicated there were 23,100 white-fronts in Southern Illinois, in addition to 77,800 snow geese.
“The continental population on white fronts has increased recently,” Holm said. “There also seems to be a movement; they used to winter in Arkansas and Texas. It shifted north and east and now we’re seeing them in Illinois.
“You see them associated with snow geese, at least in Illinois you do. It probably depends on where you’re at in the country and what time of the year.”
A white-front kill is no longer considered a rarity.
According to a 2017 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report, “FWS estimated that an average of 4,599 (Range 760 to 8,050) white-fronts were harvested in Illinois, 2011-2015. In 2016, FWS estimated 2,985 white-fronted geese were harvested in Illinois.”
Holm noted that white fronts, many of which migrate from Alaska, have adapted to the agricultural landscape and are more reliant on waste grain during the winter. Reasons for the shift are speculated to be loss of wetlands and degradation of typical wintering habitat on the Gulf Coast.
In the meantime, duck numbers appear to be steady. The Dec. 6 count showed there were 81,700 ducks in Southern Illinois, as compared to the 10-year average of 88,781.