The Illinois Daily Usage Stamps

The Canada Goose Refuges


Illinois is located within the Mississippi Flyway, as are all the states which border the Mississippi River. Illinois provides one of the most important wintering areas for Canada Geese in North America. From their nesting grounds along the west side of James Bay in Canada, a large segment of the Mississippi Flyway Canada goose population migrates southwest and winters in the southern part of the state (Hanson and smith, 1950).

Horseshoe Lake is located in the southern tip of Illinois, in Alexander County. It was formed when an ancient U-Shaped bend in the Mississippi River pinched off ( see Figure 3).



Figure 3. Horseshoe Lake is located in southernmost Illinois.



For many years Horseshoe Lake was known as one of the World’s greatest goose hunting areas (New Migratory Waterfowl, 1944). There are numerous private goose hunting clubs in the area, lining the shores of the lake and the river. Many of these date back to the 19th century (see Figure 4).



Figure 4. The Horseshoe Lake Hunting and Fishing Club was founded in 1895.



In an effort to provide protection for the Canada goose population in Southern Illinois, the IDOC purchased Horseshoe Lake and turned it into a refuge. Most of the refuge, including an island, was acquired in 1927. This amounted to 3490 acres. Once the refuge was established, Canada Geese, which had previously wintered all along the Mississippi River in Southern Illinois, began to concentrate there. By the 1940s, about 50 percent of the Canada geese in the Mississippi Flyway were wintering within a very small area in and around the Horseshoe Lake Refuge (Hanson and Smith 1950).

Prior to 1944 there were no special goose hunting regulations for the Horseshoe Lake area. Hunting was conducted under statewide regulations (Thomburg, 1994). Private goose hunting clubs were licensed by the IDOC and were required to report the number of geese killed on their property daily. The IDOC also allowed some hunting on portions of the refuge. This policy stemmed from the belief that a successful refuge operation should incorporate an annual harvest (Callaway, 1956).

A curious and potentially disastrous occurrence took place at Horseshoe Lake in the late 1930s and early 1940s—the goose flock became tame (see Figure 5). According to an excerpt from Canada Geese of the Mississippi Flyway, published by the Illinois Department of Registration and Education in 1950: “Along with the increase in numbers of Canada geese at Horseshoe Lake there were two developments of primary importance: a tremendous increase in shooting pressure on the flock and an alteration in the behavior of the geese… The goose flock using Horseshoe Lake gradually lost most of its fear of man and gunfire while near the refuge. The result…was a tremendous increase in the kill.”



Figure 5. Docile Canada geese at the Horseshoe Lake Refuge.



The average number of Canada geese killed at Horseshoe Lake from 1939 through 1945 was 9,800. This figure includes the geese killed on private property as well as on the refuge itself. In all other parts of Illinois combined the average was only 1,100. The state with the next highest average in the Mississippi Flyway, Michigan, was under 3,000 statewide.

The large annual kills at Horseshoe Lake greatly exceeded the breeding potential for Mississippi Flyway Canada geese. This resulted in the goose population being reduced by nearly one-half within a two-year span. The number of geese wintering in Illinois during 1943-44 was approximately 50,000. By 1945-46 it was down to 26,000—an all time low for the state (Hanson and Smith, 1950; Callaway, 1956).

According to F. C. Lincoln, the significance of his flyway concept was “If the birds should be exterminated in any one of the four major flyways now definitely recognized, it would at best be a long time before that region [of North America] could be repopulated, even though birds of the species affected should continue over other flyways to return to their great breeding grounds of the North.” As canada geese have a fairly low breeding potential, the overkilling at Horseshoe Lake posed serious consequences for the entire Mississippi Flyway (Hanson and Smith, 1950).

The situation quickly attracted the attention of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). In response, a new federal hunting regulation was established in 1944 specifically for the Horseshoe Lake area. It provided that after 6,000 geese were killed, the goose season would be closed. A second regulation closed all goose hunting in Alexander County at noon each day (New Migratory Waterfowl, 1944).

After the grim goose census results were obtained in 1945, shooting at Horseshoe Lake was halted after only five half-days. In part to divert attention away from the Canada geese, the IDOC purchased and developed additional public duck hunting areas at this time (detailed later in this article). No open season for Canada geese was permitted along the entire Mississippi Flyway during 1946-47. Goose hunting resumed along the flyway during 1947-48 on a restricted basis. Limited hunting was allowed at Horseshoe Lake during this time (Hanson and Smith, 1950; Callaway 1956).

Recognizing the need for a second Canada goose refuge, in 1947 the IDOC began acquiring land in Union County, about 25 miles north of Horseshoe Lake. By the early 1950s, the new Union County Wildlife Refuge totalled 5,600 acres. At this time the IDOC emphasized a feeding program at both refuges. Corn was grown at the areas, then knocked down a few rows at a time so that the geese could reach it (1950 Annual Report; 1951 Annual Report). Due in large part to the efforts of the IDOC and the USFWS, the Mississippi Flyway Canada goose population rebounded the late 1940s and early 1950s (see Figure 6).



Figure 6. Canada Geese at a southern Illinois refuge area.




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