The decline of snow geese on the the Texas Gulf Coast is a recent phenomenon, as Texas was once the preferred location for snow goose hunting and attracted hunters from all across the U.S. looking to hunt large groups of snow geese each year. From the 1960’s until the early 2000’s, small Texas towns like Eagle Lake, Garwood, Katy, Winnie and El Campo saw their local economies skyrocket during hunting season with endless groups of sportsman in town chasing the largest wintering populations of mid-continent Lesser Snow Geese. With abundant amounts of birds, large expanses of cultivated rice fields, and a seemingly endless supply of freshwater for roost ponds, the snow goose hunting on the Texas Gulf Coast flourished.
But all that changed at the turn of the 21st century, as Texas, once the wintering ground for over 1 million snow geese, had declined to less than 500,000 and eventually bottomed out at around 200,000 birds. Coastal goose numbers began to drop considerably starting around 2000 and have yet to fully recover. Such a drastic decline over a short period of time left many wondering why Texas was seeing a shortage of snow geese when the overall population was supposedly at an all-time high. As biologists and hunters began to analyze the situation, they began to see that this problem didn’t develop overnight. It was a combination of many factors that ultimately caused snow geese to vacate the Texas Gulf Coast in mass for greener pastures.
What is the current status of snow geese in Texas?
To understand how drastically the snow goose population has fallen across the Texas Gulf Coast, we have to look at trends over time. Luckily, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) has been actively involved with performing snow goose counts over prime wintering habitat in Texas since 1948. The count is conducted annually and is designed to give an overall view of the waterfowl population in order to recognize shifting population trends.
The annual count is dubbed the Mid-Winter Index and is conducted by plane with trained spotters who’s sole purpose is to count waterfowl. Aerial surveys usually start on or around December 13th each year, but are often delayed due to factors such as weather and poor visibility. Trained biologists fly predetermined transects and visually estimate the groups of geese they encounter. The survey area is divided between 4 zones which together encompass the entire Texas Gulf Coast.
- Zone 1 is the upper coast southeast of Houston
- Zone 2 is the mid-coast north of Highway 59
- Zone 3 is the mid-coast south of Highway 59
- Zone 4 is the lower coast south of the Guadalupe River.
The historical average (1982-2017) of light geese that winter in Texas each year is 624,255. The highest goose count ever recorded on the Texas Gulf Coast was 1,093,972 birds in 1996. The lowest mid-winter index count within the last 50 years was 181,383 birds in 2014. The 2017 count only recorded 191,192 snow geese, making it one of the lowest mid-winter index counts ever recorded and 433,000 birds shy of the long term average.
UPDATE: The 2018/2019 Midwinter index resulted in a total snow goose estimate of 315,938 birds which is 65% higher than the previous year’s estimate of 191,192. Observers confirmed excellent habitat conditions with more rice on the landscape (estimated at 203,000 acres this year in Texas) and tons of water on the landscape. Texas is still 42% below the long term average for snow geese for all zones combined.
Zone 1 is located on the east side of Houston and consists of the Golden Triangle, Winnie, Nome, Devers, Anahuac, and the coastal marshes. The historical average of wintering geese in Zone 1 is 108,549. Even though it has lost most of its rice production in recent years, its extensive marshes, freshwater inland impoundments, and large ranches off limits to the public offer an abundance of habitat that is favorable for light geese. From 2012 – 2015, Zone 1 wintered the most snow geese on the Gulf Coast.
Zone 2 winters the most snow geese on average with 278,137 birds over a sample size of 34 years. Rice production and overall habitat conducive to waterfowl remains steady in Colorado and Wharton Counties north of Highway 59. Zone 2 includes the areas around the towns of Eagle Lake (the self proclaimed Goose Capital of the World), Lissie, East Bernard, Garwood, Altair, Hungerford, Hockley, Nada, and El Campo. Even with massive urban sprawl that has wiped out habitat in places like Katy, Zone 2 has consistently led the mid-winter index count until very recently.
Zone 3 is located south of Highway 59 and has the second highest historical wintering average of 232,477 birds. Zone 3 is almost double the size of Zone 2, but the numbers are often lower due to less rice production and more row crop fields such as cotton which don’t offer many benefits until volunteer growth is established. Zone 3 still holds impressive numbers of snow geese at certain times of the year and is home to the Peirce Ranch which at times roosts close to 100,000 geese.
Zone 4 is the largest zone by acreage, but consistently winters the fewest amount of snow geese. It’s essentially the entire lower coast of Texas south of the Guadalupe River which includes the area around Corpus Christi, down south to the Laguna Madre and South Padre Island, and the King Ranch. This zone lacks abundant rice production, roost ponds, and habitat conducive to large groups of wintering snow geese. As such, the historical average of wintering birds for Zone 4 is just 21,891.
Why have snow geese stopped wintering in Texas?
Most people can agree that the amount of snow geese wintering in Texas began to decline around 2000, but the reasons they left have been a hotly debated topic. Unlike the population trends backed by the mid-winter index counts which give a quantitative aspect of the decline, many of the qualitative factors that contributed to them leaving are open to debate. Rather than focusing on one factor alone, it’s more likely that a combination of events all working together created the perfect storm for the geese to vacate Texas.
Snow geese have stopped wintering in Texas for a wide range of reasons that include habitat loss, decline in rice production, water shortages, warmer winters, and abundant habitat elsewhere. All of these factors combined help cause snow geese to shift their migration northward into other states such as Arkansas, Missouri, and Kansas.
Habitat Loss on the Texas Prairies
Urban sprawl and habitat destruction are some of the leading causes of snow goose decline on the Texas Gulf Coast. Nowhere is this more apparent than the Katy Prairie west of Houston. The Katy Prairie once wintered hundreds of thousands of waterfowl as recently as the early 2000’s, but is now just a shell of its former self.
Urban sprawl, in the form of subdivisions and warehouses, has contributed the most to habitat destruction around Houston. Roost ponds and rice fields that were once sought after by large groups of snow geese, no longer exist. Fragmentation brought on by development has caused a once contiguous and rather homogeneous ecosystem to be reduced to small pockets. Organizations such as the Katy Prairie Conservancy have purchased or been donated tracts of land to help protect native prairie habitat, but it’s still an uphill battle.
Traditional agricultural areas further west of Houston around Eagle Lake, Garwood, and El Campo and east near Winnie and Beaumont have not been affected to the same extent, but other factors such as crop changes and land management practices have made large areas less appealing for wintering snow geese.
Decline in Rice Production
The flat and fertile prairies of the Texas Gulf Coast provided the perfect environment for rice cultivation. Subsequently, rice farming began in the early to mid-1900’s in earnest and continued to grow for over 40 years. Between 1948 and 1986, the coastal region of Texas averaged close to 500,000 acres of rice planted each year (USDA 2017).
Around 1990, rice production in Texas began to decline and never fully recovered. Between 1986 and 2017, rice production had fallen to an average low of 250,000 acres. In 2017, Texas planted only 173,000 acres of rice, a 71 percent decrease from the all-time high. Comparison between rice production and the MWI count show that there does seem to be some correlation between the amount of rice planted and the amount of snow geese that winter in Texas.
Although Texas has lost the majority of its rice acreage, other areas of the U.S. have remained steady or even increased their output. Arkansas, for example, planted 1,160,000 acres of rice in 2017. That’s 500,000 more than Texas’ best year in 1955 with 600,000 acres of rice planted. Subsequently, Arkansas now winters the most snow geese in the U.S.
Water is the lifeblood of keeping waterfowl in any specific area over the winter months. Texas has seen its far share of droughts over the past few decades which negatively affect the production of rice and availability of roost ponds that snow geese need to sustain themselves over winter. Inconsistent rainfall and an ever increasing demand to provide a water supply to Austin and surrounding areas has caused the needs of waterfowl to be put on the backburner.
In order for the prairies to hold water for waterfowl, direct precipitation or runoff must be diverted and impounded, well water must be pumped, or water must be bought from the LCRA (or other water authority) and pumped out of a river such as the Colorado. Water usage for each of these three methods is directly dependent on rainfall rates sustained over the course of the year.
For the LCRA to sell water from the Colorado River to farmers in Garwood and Eagle Lake areas, the highland lakes (specifically Lake Travis and Lake Buchanan north of Austin), must be at a level of 850,000-acre feet or above. Any less and the farmers downstream don’t get the water they need to plant and grow their rice. Some have well systems available to offset the lack of river water available, but it’s costly to pump water and not as effective as the canal system from the river that can deliver greater quantities quicker and cheaper.
Acre Feet of Water Pumped out of the Colorado River for Agriculture (2011-2017)
- 2011 – 96,329 ac/ft
- 2012 – 93,772 ac/ft
- 2013 – 85,950 ac/ft
- 2014 – 72,449 ac/ft
- 2015 – 74,723 ac/ft
- 2016 – 246,429 ac/ft
- 2017 – 175,989 ac/ft
The acre-feet of water pumped out of the Colorado River for agriculture purposes varies greatly from year to year as you can see above. 2016 saw a 300% increase in the amount of water available to farmers. Even so, the increase of water availability did not reflect an increase of wintering snow geese. It’s likely that decades of abundant water on the gulf coast would be needed to see any real substantial change in bird numbers.
If you’ve lived on the Texas Gulf Coast for even a short period of time you’ve realized that winters have become increasingly mild. A cold front will blow through one day dropping temps, but just a few days later it’s already warming up. Harsh winters with abundant snow fall in the northern states helps funnel birds south. Without it, fewer snow geese have a reason to come to Texas.
Texas has seen its fair share of cold winters though, where several events in the early 1900’s and 1980’s actually caused portions of the coastal bays to freeze over. But since the 1970’s, the average December thru February temperatures have risen 1.4 degrees per decade. That might not seem like much, but it adds up quickly. Texas now sees a 3.5 degree increase in temperature during winter than from just a few decades ago.
Snow geese have to consume more food in colder weather to maintain their metabolism. Colder winters in states located north of Texas in the Central Flyway help freeze open water and deposit large amounts of snow accumulation that makes finding food and foraging difficult. Without cold winters to freeze water up north and deep snow to hide the food snow geese rely on, there’s no reason for them to fly any further south. Warmer winters have contributed to snow geese staying in northern states all winter long with the food and resources they need. Why would they fly 1,000 miles or more south when they can find all that they need elsewhere?
Increase in Hunting Pressure
Hunting pressure on the Texas Gulf Coast has steadily risen since waterfowl hunting first started in the area. Houston is now a city of over 2.3 million people and they are all within a 1-2 hour drive of the prime snow goose hunting spots. This never ending supply of hunters, with only a limited amount of land available to hunt, has created an increase in hunting pressure that is detrimental to waterfowl in Texas.
Snow geese that still winter in Texas quickly learn which areas to avoid. How do they do this? It’s simple; they get shot at repeatedly day in and day out if they enter high pressure areas. As you can imagine, this is not an ideal situation for any species, and it’s not out of the realm of possibilities to think that snow geese seek less pressured areas including those out of state. Great snow goose hunts can still be had, and I’ve written about what it takes here, but they are few and far between these days.
That’s not to say that some ranch managers, outfitters, and state agencies aren’t providing snow geese with refuges and roost ponds, they are, but it’s not at the scale needed to winter large populations of geese without them getting harassed 24/7. The increase in hunting pressure has become so bad in some spots that it’s even difficult to decoy geese due to other shots constantly going off and scaring incoming birds.
Increase in bag limits to 20 snow geese per day and the implementation of the Light Goose Conservation Order to help “Save the Tundra” have not helped either. The pressure has only increased, the quality of hunting has declined incredibly, and the snow geese of Texas have suffered.
Will the snow goose population in Texas ever recover?
It’s possible that the snow goose population wintering in Texas could recover, but it’s highly unlikely in the near term. Too many factors have come together that have all caused snow geese to winter elsewhere. Weather can’t be controlled. If unseasonably warm winters are the new normal, then there are few reasons a snow goose needs to fly south in the first place.
The decline in rice production has reduced the habitat and food availability needed to sustain large populations of snow geese. Water shortages have largely contributed to farmers being restricted from flooding their fields for rice crops, and again it’s highly dependent on what Mother Nature provides. It may take decades of colder winters and abundant precipitation to provide the starting point for Texas to start getting its snow geese back, if it even still remains a possibility.
The near term prospects for a recovering snow goose population in Texas looks bleak. With all the factors that are out of our control, we still continue to put massive amounts of hunting pressure on the few geese that still remain. The urban sprawl from Houston and Katy continues to advance rapidly westward and few native prairie habitats still exists. Snow goose hunters in Texas answered the cry to “Save the Tundra”, but the cries to “Save the Texas prairies and the snow geese that use them”, fell on deaf ears.
The Bottom Line
The snow goose population that once wintered in Texas was the largest in the United States. At its peak, Texas wintered 1.2 million birds as early as 2000. Hunters flocked to Texas from around the world to hunt the massive amounts of snow geese and experience the Goose Hunting Capital of the World which was Eagle Lake, Texas at the time.
But Texas changed within the past few decades and the snow goose population shifted to wintering grounds out of the state. Recent counts show only around 200,000 snow geese call Texas their home for the winter, an 83% decline in 18 years. This drastic decline left many wondering what happened and if it could be corrected.
Although there are many theories, the most likely factors that contributed to the decline of snow geese on the Texas Gulf Coast were habitat loss, warmer winters, a decline in rice production, water shortages, and increase in hunting pressure. These factors all working together created the perfect storm which resulted in a less desirable destination for wintering snow geese.
It’s impossible to predict if snow geese will come back to Texas in the numbers they once did. Even with perfect conditions, it may take decades to reverse the trends that are seen today. Snow geese are some of the most adaptable birds around, and it may be time Texas adapts to fewer snow geese for the foreseeable future.