Sam Lawry

It seems that every year when the family is full of turkey and dressing, we head to the woods to select the perfect Christmas tree. During the past 10 years or so, that outing coincides with the annual migration of lesser snow geese. This year was a bit different, with the sights and sounds of this marvel of nature heading south through the Bitterroot Valley the first week of November.

Their path leads south to warmer temperatures and vast grain fields in Utah, California and New Mexico. Whether it was night or day, if you were outside this week in the Bitterroot, one could not help but hear the yelps of snow geese - almost sounding like 20 small dogs barking a high-pitch cry.

Walking out of the grocery story on Sunday, I smiled as several store visitors were looking up to the sky trying to find the owners of the continuous calls and soon several people spotted the numerous “V’s” of migrating geese. So where do these birds originate from and just where are they headed?

Bird migration is one of nature’s most wonderful symbols of changing seasons. It is often triggered by temperature, weather and the length of day. Of the estimated 5 million birds, lesser snow geese migrate through both the Central and Pacific Flyways from their summer grounds in the Arctic and Russia’s Wrangel Island, which is northwest of Alaska.

They rear their four-to-six goslings on an abundance of insects, which provides substantial protein in preparation for their long journey south. By September, the young have gained their full weight, about 5 pounds, and although they may retain a few gray feathers, they mostly resemble the adult pure white plumage with black wing tips.

Biologist have used various tracking devices throughout the years, from leg bands and larger numbered neck collars to satellite transmitters, which assist in identifying where these birds travel throughout the year. The population of lesser snow geese that travel through western Montana often stage at Freezout Lake near Great Falls before heading south through several west Montana corridors. Their destination can be the rice fields of the central valley of California, the lower Colorado River near Yuma, Arizona, and Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico.

At peak numbers these areas winter more than several million lesser snow geese. The birds will spend the winter feeding and storing up fat reserves for the spring migration back to the Arctic and Wrangle Island.

Agriculture has dramatically changed these key migration corridors over the years as these birds are highly dependent upon waste grain from wheat, barley and rice production. Recently, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has adopted rules increasing the sport harvest of snow geese in hope of reducing the overall number of geese. If left alone, this population – which has been increasing 5 percent annually, due to abundant winter feed – would negatively impact their sensitive nesting habitat in the Arctic and Wrangle Island.

So the next time you see or hear this wonderful event, take a moment to consider how lucky we are in the Bitterroot, to enjoy this this wonder of nature that signals a long journey’s end is near for this true world traveler.