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The embarrassment of riches: agricultural food subsidies, high goose numbers, and loss of Arctic wetlands – a continuing saga

Publication: Environmental Reviews
December 2003


Agriculture has provided a nutritional subsidy to the Anatidae (swans, geese, ducks), which has affected their trophic relationships and the Arctic wetlands where they breed. The Mid-Continent Population of lesser snow geese, which breeds in the Canadian Arctic and which traditionally wintered in the coastal marshes of the Gulf States, now feeds in agricultural landscapes. The geometric growth of this population since 1970 is coincident with increased application of nitrogen to farmland and high crop yields. Widespread availability of agricultural foods allows the birds to meet much of their energy demand for migration and reproduction. Their migration conforms to a stepping stone model linked to land use, but feeding also takes place upon arrival on the Arctic breeding grounds. High bird numbers have dramatically affected coastal marshes of the Canadian Arctic. Foraging has produced alternative stable states characterized by sward destruction and near irreversible changes in soil properties of exposed sediments. Locally, this loss of resilience has adversely affected different groups of organisms, resulting in an apparent trophic cascade. A spring hunt was introduced in 1999 in an attempt to check population growth. The current annual cull is now thought to be higher than the replacement rate. Much of the decline of the Mid-Continent Population is probably linked to shooting, but the harassment of birds that fail to acquire sufficient food for reproduction may contribute. The agricultural food subsidy has led to a mismatch between this avian herbivore and its environment — a consequence of migratory connectivity that links wintering and breeding grounds. Key words: agricultural crops, lesser snow geese, migratory connectivity, Arctic coastal marshes, grubbing, hypersalinity, the spring hunt.


L'agriculture a fourni un apport alimentaire aux Anatidae (cygnes, oies, canards) qui a affecté leurs relations trophiques avec les terres humides de l'Arctique, où ils se reproduisent. La population de l'intérieur du continent des petites oies blanches, qui niche dans l'Arctique Canadien et qui hivernait traditionnellement dans les marais côtiers des états du golfe, se nourrit maintenant sur les terres agricoles. La croissance géométrique de cette population, depuis 1970, coïncide avec une augmentation de l'application d'azote sur les terres et avec l'accroissement des récoltes. L'abondance et la disponibilité de nourriture agricole permet aux oiseaux de rencontrer une bonne partie de leur besoin en énergie, pour la migration et la reproduction. Leur migration suit un modèle en pied-à-terre, lié à l'utilisation des sols, mais leur nutrition se poursuit lorsque les oiseaux arrivent sur les terrains de reproduction de l'Arctique. Ces grands nombres d'oiseaux ont drastiquement affecté les marais côtiers de l'Arctique canadien. Le broutage a conduit à des états stables alternatifs caractérisés par la destruction des pelouses et des changements irréversibles dans les propriétés pédologiques des sédiments exposés. Localement, cette perte de résilience a affecté négativement différents groupes d'organismes, conduisant à une cascade trophique apparente. En 1999, on a introduit une chasse printanière dans l'espoir de maîtriser la croissance de la population. On pense maintenant que le prélèvement annuel dépasse le taux de remplacement. Une bonne partie du déclin de la population de l'intérieur du continent est probablement liée à la chasse, mais le harassement des oiseaux qui n'arrivent pas à trouver assez de nourriture pour leur reproduction, peut y contribuer. L'apport de nourriture par l'agriculture à conduit à un écart entre l'herbivorie aviaire et son environnement - une conséquence de la continuité migratoire qui relie les terrains d'hivernage et de reproduction.Mots clés : récoltes, petite oie blanche, connectivité migratoire, marais côtiers arctiques, essartement, hypersalinité, chasse printanière.[Traduit par la rédaction]

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cover image Environmental Reviews
Environmental Reviews
Volume 11Number 4December 2003
Pages: 193 - 232


Version of record online: 15 February 2011


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