Cross-Border Birds

As greater snow geese follow their ancient migratory path to the Canadian Arctic this spring, a century-old US law meant to protect them is in flux.

Usually in early May, Canadian wildlife biologist Josée Lefebvre and her team of researchers board five small planes to fly over the waterways of the southern Quebec region to count the world population of greater snow geese. Two planes trace shaky transects along branching and sometimes reconnecting rivers, another flies north to swoop around a distant lake, a fourth goes as far as the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and a fifth one jogs across the border to the tip of Lake Champlain, the pilot radioing in his flight plan to United States air traffic control using a designated squawk code. Even with the wildfowl’s numbers hovering around a stable 700,000, the team doesn’t want to miss a single flock.

photo of greater snow geese
A family of greater snow geese on Bylot Island in Canada. Every year, greater snow geese migrate from their wintering range along the United States’ Atlantic coast to their summer breeding grounds in the Canadian Arctic. Photo by Christian Marcotte.

The Canadian biologists survey between the hours of 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., when the birds will most likely be on the water as they often are at Cap Tourmente National Wildlife Area, resting and feeding on tidal mud flats, their heads often submerged as they use their serrated bills to remove the starchy roots of bulrush grasses. The iron rich mud stains their heads and necks a rust color that will remain till they molt towards the end of summer; by then, they’ll be more than 3,000 kilometers away on their summer breeding grounds in the Canadian Arctic.

Little do the geese know, since 2017, laws surrounding their protection — and some 1,000 other species like them that migrate across borders along different flyways in the US, Canada, Mexico, Russia, and Japan — have been discussed in the committee rooms of the US House of Representatives. They have been the subject of memorandum after memorandum and letters of concern, the flutter of so much paper in the air, as the Trump administration seeks to make changes to the century-old Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, or MBTA.

Until recently, US companies could be prosecuted for the deaths of migratory birds with jail time and fines up to $15,000 dollars per bird for what is known as “incidental take,” when birds die or suffer as a result of otherwise lawful activities. In 2016, for example, on a different North American flyway, as a storm approached, thousands of migrating lesser snow geese circled the only available body of water in sight, a former open-pit copper mine known as the Berkeley Pit, looking for a safe place to wait out the weather. Despite the hazing efforts of staff, the birds landed in the “rusty-hewed,” “metal-laden” water, as reported by The Weather Channel. To one onlooker, it looked like “700 acres of white birds.” Those that didn’t die in the pit would later perish in flight and on not-so-far-away fields. The Berkeley Pit owners weren’t fined for the event. While their case was being reviewed, Trump took office; even on the campaign trail he had taken aim at the MBTA, and signaled his stance against environmental regulations that he says unfairly targeted industry with “totalitarian tactics.” Yet still anticipating litigation, the owners increased monitoring by staff at the Berkeley Pit and added to their arsenal of avian deterrent techniques an air cannon and mini-lasers; they also expressed shame and regret about what had happened.

In other cases, steep fines have been levied. In 2010, for example, after the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded, flooding the Gulf of Mexico with millions of gallons of oil, BP was fined $100 million for “taking” over one million birds — including gulls, terns, pelicans, and more. The company was also required to take mitigation measures to prevent future deaths.

Under a proposed rule issued by the US Fish and Wildlife Service in January, these types of incidental takes from gas spills, oil pits, wind turbines, and power lines would be legal. The MTBA would only prohibit intentional — and unpermitted — killing of migratory birds. (The proposed rule, which is being challenged in court, would codify what has been department policy since December 2017.)

photo of greater snow geese
During their migration, greater snow geese sometimes fly for 24 hours at a time, completing up to 700 kilometers of their journey if the wind is right. Photo by Christian Marcotte.

As Amanda Rodewald, senior director of conservation science at the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, argued in her testimony before the Oceans, Waters, and Wildlife Subcommittee of Congress in 2019, “the act that removes incidental take [from the MBTA] has rendered the law silent on most causes of human mortality for our birds.” As she later tells me, the MBTA, as it was understood in the past, was a “powerful” reminder for industries to conduct business with an awareness of how what they do affects land, water, birds, and ultimately people as well.

Rodewald sometimes refers to migrating birds as “economic engines,” driving bird-watchers and hunters alike to visit migration routes and spend. But the language of money doesn’t quite explain who the snow geese are in our imagination, sleeping on the water off of the Cap Tourmente National Wildlife Area in Quebec in great noisy “rafts” — the distance from land protects them from predators — or singing through the night, passing in front of the moon as they sometimes fly for 24 hours at a time. The language of money doesn’t explain why enthusiasts travel their own sometimes more modest routes, hoping to glimpse birds in the thousands.

The first week of March, the geese streamed across New York state on their way to southern Quebec. One cold evening, Alyssa Johnson, environmental educator at Montezuma Audubon Center in Savannah took the long way home from work. She pulled over next to a flooded farm field, part of the Montezuma Wetlands Complex, and used her car as a blind as she stood in the rain. Using a technique she’s honed for years of counting one segment and extrapolating outwards and her “gut feeling,” she estimated that she saw around 100,000 geese — some on the ground, stepping through muck as they fed on waste grains, others in the air “spiraling, picking up, and landing.” An eagle flew over, and more geese burst into the air, honking loudly, their flight an expanding and contracting elliptical current that lasted for many minutes after the frustrated predator retreated.

“They were flying all around me and all above me, and I was the only one there,” says Johnson.

Like many places along the Atlantic flyway, Montezuma Wetlands Complex is publicly managed, with acreage owned by the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation, The Nature Conservancy, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and private individuals representing a spectrum of stakeholders. The refuge offers migrating birds a mosaic of habitats — marshes, wetlands, forests, and flooded farmlands with stubby stalks, remains of crops. The birds come through “so fast,” says Johnson, and they stay no more than two weeks.

Around the third week of May, in southern Quebec, over the span of a few days they’ll suddenly be gone. The great gyre of the sun turning in the sky, the shift in daylight sends a signal, and they’ll lift off and leave, 700,000 greater snow geese moving like a single body north.

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