Decades ago, when Randy Bartz began hunting Canada geese seriously -- placing his long love of duck hunting secondary -- he had limited places where he could chase these big birds.
"Of course we had them in Rochester,'' said Bartz, of Oronoco, Minn., also known as "The Flagman,'' for his development of nylon goose imitations that hunters wave to attract honkers. "But elsewhere in the state, you either had to go to the far northwest, to Thief Lake, or to Fergus Falls or a couple of other spots. There just weren't that many opportunities.''
Times have changed. From a breeding population of almost none -- zero -- resident Canada geese in the late 1960s, Minnesota's flock has grown to about 300,000 of these fowl.
"When we first began our breeding waterfowl surveys in spring 1968,'' said Department of Natural Resources waterfowl specialist Steve Cordts, "we didn't count one Canada goose for the first six years. Now they can be found just about everywhere in the state.''
As Minnesota's honker population has grown, hunting opportunities have expanded -- and not only geographically. A September season has been added, which this year begins on Saturday, a half-hour before sunrise.
Bartz is among about 25,000 Minnesota waterfowlers who will be afield then, a group that during the early season (ending this year on Sept. 22) will kill about 40 percent of Canada geese harvested in the state this fall.
Amazingly, while Minnesota's resident Canada goose population has exploded, the number of Canada geese that migrate through the state -- the Eastern Prairie Population (EPP) that nests in the Canadian far north -- has remained about constant.
In the 1960s, the EPP flock provided nearly the entirety of the Minnesota Canada goose harvest, much of it near the Lac qui Parle Wildlife Management Area and Refuge in the western part of the state.
Today, the EPP harvest represents less than 10 percent of the state's Canada goose kill, a decline caused not only by the expansion of resident Canada geese but also because many EPP birds now arrive in Minnesota as late as mid-November, a month later than they once did.
Longer, warmer falls in recent years might be one reason for the delayed migration. Agricultural changes on Manitoba prairies also seem to be keeping EPP geese in the north much later into autumn. And Winnipeg's honker population has grown exponentially in recent decades, as that city, much like Minneapolis-St. Paul, has come to serve as a sort of refuge for the birds, safe from hunters.
But if Minnesota's resident Canada goose population has grown so markedly, and the EPP migration has remained constant -- notwithstanding the lateness of its arrival here -- why hasn't the total harvest of these birds in the state skyrocketed proportionately?
One reason, Cordts said, is that there could be a "full freezer'' effect that comes into play as fall wears on -- meaning at some point even ardent goose hunters have killed as many geese as they want to kill. Or can eat.
Another explanation is that the number of Canada goose hunters in the state has trended downward. Example: In the early goose season last year, 25,189 hunters participated, down from 33,202 in 2000. Declines occurred in each of five regions monitored by the DNR, including the metro, which saw a falloff of about 1,000 September waterfowlers, from 13,656 in 2008 to 12,794 in 2009.
"I'm somewhat surprised there isn't a little more interest in goose hunting, particularly in September,'' Cordts said. "Generally, if you do a little scouting, there are geese around to hunt.''
The good news, Cordts said, is that Minnesota's resident Canada goose numbers appear to have stabilized, in large part because of the relatively high harvest achieved by hunters.
"Our situation is different from that of the Dakotas and Manitoba,'' he said. "Through the late 1990s, there was evidence that Minnesota's breeding goose population was still growing. Now, for the last decade, it's been stable, while in the Dakotas and Manitoba, goose populations are still rising. They don't have the number of hunters we do in Minnesota, so it's difficult to get their populations stabilized.''
"Flagman'' Bartz is among those happy with the proliferation of resident geese in Minnesota. About 20 years ago, he sold his flags and other products (www.flagmanproducts.com) in Rochester and a handful of other Minnesota cities. Today, they can be found from Warroad to Worthington.
"When I guided goose hunters in Rochester in the 1980s,'' Bartz said, "people came from all over the state to hunt. Now that number has fallen off. Most people can hunt Canada geese right near their homes now throughout Minnesota.''