Tale from the plucking table
The sun shines brightly at the Broad River camp in Wapusk National Park, but a cold wind brings a bite to this May morning. It is not quite 7 a.m., but the sun has been up for hours, and so have we. Sunlight reflects off the snow and onto my skin, darkening my tundra tan, and blending my face into the camouflage browns of my parka. I sit in a pile of feathers on a patch of dry lichen-covered tundra, surrounded by snow-covered ground. Millions of white feathers mingle with the shimmering snow.
Feathers are stuck to my greasy, unwashed hair, my lips, and my blood-smeared clothing — all the way down to the bottom of my rubber boots. I am thankful for the wind, even though it is bitterly cold, because it blows some feathers away from me. Plucking has made my thumbs raw, and gutting has made my hands greasy and blood-stained. This kind of dirt remains under your nails and in the cracks of your hands long after your return to running water and hot showers. The lingering dirt reminds you of a successful hunting trip. A gardener or mechanic would be familiar with these stains — I smell like a mixture of goose fat, guts, bog mud and pond water.
As I continue plucking, I scan the horizon regularly for polar bears, black bears and barren ground grizzlies. I look east and see a figure in camouflage walking towards camp and realize it is Darcy, a hunter from York Factory First Nation. As he approaches, Cyril, a Churchill hunter, emerges from another tree island. They stop to chat for a moment, then Darcy continues on until he reaches me at camp. He drops off eight more snow geese for me to clean.
A little while later, Frank and Brendan arrive at camp with their morning harvest and join me at the plucking table. We are in a rush to get as many geese plucked and gutted so they are ready to load onto the helicopter that will soon come to pick up Kelly, another Churchill hunter. I am thankful the hunters have arrived to help, but their time at the plucking table does not last long. All of a sudden, a flock of snow geese flies low over the camp. Frank and Brendan grab their guns and each drop a snow goose.
This was a day from the snow goose hunting pilot project conducted in Wapusk National Park last spring. After consulting and coordinating with local and Indigenous communities, Parks Canada flew six goose hunters, as well as the provincial game bird manager and myself to the Park to bring much-needed awareness to the snow goose hyper-abundance issue and the detrimental effect these birds have on the landscape.
The Park, located in the remote wilderness of northern Manitoba, is home to a wide variety of plant and animal species, including more than five million snow geese that nest in or migrate through the Park each year. The birds’ foraging behaviour causes extensive damage to the Park’s landscape, leading to erosion and higher salt content in the remaining soil. Eventually, the landscape becomes hyper-saline, vegetation growth is prohibited and habitat quality for geese and other species declines.
The impacted area in Wapusk has increased from 4 km2 to upwards of 300 km2 in 40 years. While it is unlikely the hunt will decrease the bird’s presence, it brings awareness of the damage this over-abundant species is having on a significant protected landscape.
Following the successful snow goose hunt, Parks Canada hosted a community snow goose cook-off in Churchill with geese harvested in the Park – over 150 people attended the event, tasted the dishes and voted for their choice for the Golden Goose Award. The event promoted the culinary value of geese, especially to people living in an area where healthy protein is incredibly expensive. Snow geese represent a nutrient rich food source to local people, free of packaging and freight costs.
While we acknowledge this pilot project will not have an impact on the snow goose population, it has allowed Parks Canada to actively collaborate with Indigenous groups and traditional land users, increasing their sense of connection to Wapusk, and the opportunity to discuss possible strategies to manage the hyperabundant species in the future.
Jill Larkin is the Resource Management Officer at Wapusk National Park. She and Jodi Duhard, Public Relations Officer for the Manitoba Field Unit, Parks Canada, wrote this article together.