Washington’s Runaway Snow Geese

Mae West said too much of a good thing is wonderful. But she’d never seen the beautiful, marauding snow geese that swoop in each fall to take over Washington State’s Skagit Valley.

It’s a crisp fall morning in western Washington state, and the snow geese are returning to Skagit Valley. The geese arrive from the Arctic in massive, undulating Vs. You can hear them coming: Their honks echo across the fields as they fly over fog-shrouded fields and bays. Neighbors step outside and crane their necks to catch a glimpse of the early arrivals. As autumn fades into rainy winter, many more geese will arrive, the flocks of snow-white fowl swelling by the thousands. The breathtaking sight moves some to tears.

Skagit Valley, 260 square miles of family farms and sloughs bordering Puget Sound, is home to so many snow geese due to efforts three decades ago that were primarily intended to encourage other waterfowl. The valley sits along the Pacific Flyway where, every autumn, millions of migratory birds, from hefty trumpeter swans to twittering dunlins, wing south from the Arctic to lower latitudes in California, the Southwest, and beyond. The chance to see thousands of birds of all kinds mingling in one place is one reason locals have long called this place “the magic Skagit.”

Perhaps none of these birds is as iconic, though, as the lesser snow geese that arrive from Russia’s Wrangel Island. In recent years, more than 100,000 of them have spent the winter here, several times more than in the past. Now, there are too many. They eat too much, poop too much, decimate crops. Even as some residents weep with joy at the sight of them, others nearly weep with frustration. They curse the geese as “sky rats” and wonder what havoc the wandering fowl will wreak this year.

The challenge posed by these geese in the valley is one being played out in agricultural flyways across America, where overwintering snow geese can number in the millions. The predicament serves as a cautionary tale of the unforeseen consequences that can arise when humans try to do right by wildlife. Now, the denizens of Skagit Valley must figure out how best to wrangle these Wrangel Island geese.

Snow geese and other migratory ducks, swans, and shorebirds have flown southward from the Arctic along the Pacific coast for thousands of years, since, according to fossil and archaeological evidence, Pleistocene ice sheets gave way to coastal wetlands. The birds were originally drawn to valley’s vast tidal marshes, using it as a rest stop on their journey. Few stayed for the winter; scant historical records suggest several thousand in all. Easier food and a warmer climate awaited them in California’s Central Valley. What’s more, much of the land around the Skagit River was forested at the time—not ideal territory for snow geese.

Settlers arrived in earnest in Skagit Valley around the time of the 1855 Treaty of Point Elliot, which took millions of acres in today’s Puget Sound region out of the control of Indigenous peoples. Prior to European settlement, the Skagit River and its southern twin, the Stillaguamish River, ran through thousands of acres of wetlands, according to Amanda Summers, a biologist working with the Stillaguamish Tribe. The settlers set about transforming the coast’s wetlands and forests into now-familiar fields of cabbage, oats, and seed plants for vegetables.

By the late 1960s, most of those coastal wetlands had been drained and replaced by flat, open farms. Lifelong Skagit farmer Maynard Axelson remembered when he was young seeing a small but faithful flock of snow geese return each fall to linger in the Skagit River’s delta. The geese seldom ventured inland. “It used to be a rare opportunity, shooting a snow goose,” said Axelson. “You had to go out on the marsh, so it was tough to get them.” Winter populations of snow geese hovered between a healthy 20,000 and 30,000 animals most years, with hundreds of thousands more flying south. Lesser snow geese weren’t endangered in the United States, though the population on Wrangel Island had been steadily dropping until about 1980.

The preserves, the thinking went, would give migratory birds respite outside farmers’ fields… The program seemed like a win-win.

Game duck populations needed a boost at the time, though, said Mark Petrie, a waterfowl researcher with Ducks Unlimited, a hunting conservation group. Their attempt to help ducks would set the stage for unprecedented snow goose success. In the early 1990s the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) partnered with Ducks Unlimited on a simple solution to help both ducks and farmers: plant cover crops. Cover crops such as clover and barley stabilize soil and add nutrients while providing migratory birds with something green to nibble on when they visit. The state also established nature preserves, including a 240-acre preserve across the road from Axelson’s farm. The preserves, the thinking went, would give migratory birds respite outside farmers’ fields.

“It was certainly aimed at ducks,” Petrie said of the program, “but with the knowledge that snow geese would use those fields as well,” said Petrie. “We fully expected that.”

The program seemed like a win-win.

About the same time, Skagit Valley saw another change. Vegetable canneries moved to eastern Washington, where operational costs were cheaper. In response, farmers in the valley, closer to the coast, shifted from growing canning crops—peas, carrots, corn—to potatoes. They’re not a natural food for snow geese, but they’re big and starchy, similar to the region’s long-gone marsh bulrushes. “Like a Snickers bar for a goose,” said Kyle Spragens, a WDFW waterfowl manager. The buffet table was set.

While the cover crop program eventually ended, the geese kept coming in droves, and they didn’t stay in the nature preserves. “Pretty soon, the geese were hopping over the dike and coming into the fields, going, ‘Wow, here’s food that’s available virtually 24/7. I don’t have to feed by the tide [or] by moonlight.’ That’s what really changed their habits dramatically,” said Axelson, the farmer.

The snow geese had learned that Skagit Valley was more than a rest stop. It was a destination.

“It was the perfect, or imperfect, storm, depending on who you ask,” said WDFW’s Spragens.

Before the year 2000, the number of snow geese wintering in Skagit Valley and the neighboring Fraser Valley in Canada bounced between about 20,000 and 50,000. After 2000, the winter population never dropped below 50,000. In most years since 2016, the winter population in the Skagit-Fraser Valleys has exceeded 100,000 geese. “If they have a good breeding year, with [populations comprising] 30 percent or more young, it could easily be over 170- or 180,000, maybe even 200,000 birds” that arrive in the area, said Sean Boyd, a wildlife biologist who has studied the Fraser-Skagit snow geese for three decades. It is unlikely the numbers will drop any time soon, said Boyd, barring an avian disease sweeping through the population. (Avian flu has already killed more than 700 Skagit waterfowl, including many snow geese, this year.)

The boom in snow geese here tracks with skyrocketing springtime populations at the geese’s Wrangel Island nesting site. This growth in the Arctic has meant many more snow geese also heading farther south over the past decade, to California’s Central Valley, where drought has increased competition with other waterfowl.

For photographers, birders, and hunters, the whirling flocks that arrive in the Skagit are a delight. Diana Hoffman got goosebumps as she recalled the first time she saw the geese here in the 1990s. “I was watching a quiet flock of snow geese blanketing a field,” said Hoffman, a photographer and board member of the Skagit Audubon Society. “When they lifted off, I cried, as I often still do. It’s just so beautiful.”

Farmers and scientists said they, too, appreciate the birds, but said the problems that 100,000-plus snow geese bring with them are real, and enormous. These geese are part of a system that humans have already whacked out of equilibrium, according to Summers, the biologist. “We lost the balance a long time ago, as far as the ecosystem and fish and wildlife go,” she said. “It’s a tricky species,” she said of the snow geese, “because they do tend to bottleneck in one area of the state, and that can make them hard to tolerate, depending on your perspective.”

The geese may add more chaos to a system that humans have already whacked out of equilibrium.

When 100,000 geese move in for a season, they can bring a variety of problems. Poop is one of them. Snow geese poop about once every five minutes, said Spragens, the waterfowl manager. Farmer Jenn Smith knows this from experience. “You can’t go for a walk without an umbrella,” and not because of rain, said Smith, whose farm is on the same “goose hotspot” island as Axelson’s. Standing under the biggest flocks as they stream by overhead, you can hear a steady plop, plop, plop of poo hitting pavement.

While the droppings may act like fertilizer, delivering nutrients such as nitrogen to the soil, this process needs more research to fully understand, Spragens said. The droppings also contain bacteria such as fecal coliform, and if a flock’s arrival coincides with heavy rains, sometimes the numbers don’t work in the farmers’ favor, resulting in fines for excessive or off-season manure application.

Crop losses are also common when snow geese alight on fields. Snow geese have serrated bills designed to spike down into mud, root out stems and tubers, and slice off vegetation. Their arrival can spell swift carnage for entire crops. “It’s painful to watch your crop of two-, three-inch-high winter grain that was planted in October go from being green to just dirt showing out in the field. It’s kind of heartbreaking,” said Darrin Morrison, a potato and vegetable farmer. Sometimes the losses aren’t from geese foraging but simply from thousands of webbed feet walking across tender shoots during a wet Northwest winter.

Farmers like Morrison said they do enjoy sight of the geese. “They’re really a spectacle,” he said. But as fellow farmer Dave Hedlin put it, appreciation has its limits. “If you lose ten thousand dollars of feed in a night,” said Hedlin, “that can make you grumpy.”

Minimizing crop damage from the snow geese and other birds is half strategy, half luck. Farmers try using fake coyotes, flashy ribbons, hunting, and sound cannons to ward them off. Some farmers place animal carcasses in their fields to attract eagles that also hunt geese, Morrison said.

Some farmers have accepted their role in the ecosystem and try to use natural calendars to minimize their losses. They change their planting schedules, either to avoid the geese or to have older, hardier plants that won’t be as appealing to the waterfowl, Morrison said.

“Once you understand the species, then you adapt a little bit,” Hedlin said.

The snow goose spectacle draws people from all over. Like the geese, those who flock to this rural place bring both benefits and challenges.

Every winter, cars line up along the valley’s sleepy farm roads—narrow roads not designed for traffic, much less tourism. More often than not, the bird-watchers park near one of the NO PARKING signs posted every 100 feet or so. Visitors slow down to take in the scene, sometimes stopping in the road to snap a quick photo. “That’s really frustrating if you’re trying to move farm machinery down the road. It’s really kind of a hazard,” said Morrison. In a survey in 2021, local respondents listed parking and traffic as the biggest concerns for increased agritourism.

Visitors are usually respectful of the farmers and the land. But not always. On Axelson’s farm, which locals call “ground zero” for snow geese, tourists have been known to drive right into the fields. Neighbor Smith once returned from a grocery run to find dozens of tourists walking around her fields. “I don’t have a problem with people who want to look at birds. I mean, I get it,” she said. “But don’t trample on my living to get there.”

As the number of both geese and gawkers has risen, the temperature of the debate has increased, too. The WDFW has encouraged snow goose hunting to try to keep the population in check. But, “There’s a general tension that a lot of the folks who drive here from Seattle to enjoy the birds are pretty anti-hunting. It pains them to see people shooting the birds out of the sky,” said Jed Holmes, who, in 2017, helped create Birds of Winter, a local organization that promotes the Skagit’s birds, farming legacy, and tourism.

That tension is underlain by forces a day-tripper may not notice. Development pressure has been building for years in Skagit Valley, which sits only about 70 miles north of booming Seattle. Some vocal locals are wary of growth; the valley prides itself on being part of one of the last “true agricultural economies” in Washington. In the 2021 survey, one respondent wrote about concern for a “loss of rural character.” Stickers proclaiming “Protect Skagit Farmland, Pavement is Forever” dot bumpers and road signs. This concern, and the preservation efforts it has spawned, have been successful: To date, more than 14,000 acres of the valley have been set aside as protected farmland. “Nobody is going to build on this farmland, ever,” proclaimed one farmer who recently brought 173 acres into the program. And yet pressures to develop never lessen.

At the same time, agritourism has become part of Skagit Valley’s brand, a place that is both food source and road-trip destination. There’s a massive tulip festival in spring and bustling roadside farm stands in summer. And so the visitors that the snow geese bring—birders armed with scopes, dogged photographers, hunters—can become stand-ins for larger issues about how the valley is changing, and they have prompted uncomfortable questions about what it wants to become. In this debate, visitors can be easy scapegoats for larger pressures that farmers feel, and expressing frustration toward them is a way to vent steam about a complicated situation, said Holmes.

At a time when Americans are increasingly polarized and reluctant to compromise, finding a path forward that can work for geese, farmers, and everyone else who loves this place is a double challenge

When it comes to solving the snow geese problem, there’s no consensus on what should be done. No one option is a panacea, nor easily done.

Hunting will be a critical part of managing goose populations in the future, many locals seem to agree. The state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife has increased bag limits on snow geese and altered the hunting season to stretch later into the spring. Last season, hunters in the Fraser-Skagit system killed more than 10,000 snow geese. That is a lot of geese—and yet it’s still only drop in the bucket. “Even with increasing harvest, I don’t know if we can keep up with that exponential population increase,” said Boyd, the wildlife biologist.

Another option is to set aside more state land for the birds. Without more nature preserves or state-owned fields where waterfowl can forage, geese that are pushed from one field by a farmer will simply fly to another farmer’s field. “One of the farms is going to lose,” Spragens said. But Skagit land is limited, expensive, and highly sought. So this option seems unlikely, he said.

Planting cover crops on existing public lands is another way to relieve pressure on farmers’ fields. Those lands cover a relatively small fraction of the valley, though. Still another idea: The community could plan its crops together, Spragens said. Doing so could prompt the geese to move around the valley, in essence pairing crop rotation with goose rotation and limiting their damage in any one place. (A group of farmers already do friendly “field swaps” for crop rotation, so this idea may not be so far-fetched.)

A more ambitious idea is to convert some farms back into wetlands, or else expand the protected buffer zones around rivers and drainages. The primary goal would be to help Chinook salmon, whose numbers have been in decline for years. But doing so could also benefit waterfowl. A bill focused on buffer zones, HB1838, was introduced in Washington’s state legislature last January with the goal of protecting riparian salmon habitats—marshy areas that would also support some duck and goose populations.

While the bill has support from a number of tribes and environmental groups, some pro-farming groups called HB1838 “anti-agriculture” and “farm-killing.” Farmers like Hedlin had a more measured but skeptical critique. Would flooding some fields truly help salmon recover? he wondered. “I’m not particularly afraid of losing part of my farm to a salmon project,” he said. “But I am afraid of losing part of our farm, and my grandkids still don’t have fish.”

Still another option that’s often discussed is to give farmers more recognition, and perhaps also reimbursement, for the ecological services they provide by feeding snow geese and other birds. “I don’t think farmers get enough credit for the condition of the birds,” said Morrison. “They seem to be thriving.” Some possibilities include payments for bird-induced crop losses, or bringing back the cash-for-cover-crops program. Who would pay for such programs, though—the state or federal government—is yet unclear.

Tourism could be part of a solution, said Holmes. He pointed out that already some county resident tax dollars fund farmland preservation, and fees on hunters’ bullets and registrations fund state habitat acquisition and enhancement programs. Why shouldn’t there be some kind of program or fund that collects revenue from visitors who come here to enjoy this place and its wildlife? he asked. Or, what about a bird-themed license plate, whose proceeds could fund reimbursement for crop losses? He suggested. “There’s a cost associated with hosting hundreds of thousands of waterfowl on our farmland in terms of crop damage, and people come up and make beautiful photos to sell, or lead tours,” Holmes said. “There should be a way for people to support the birds they love, and the farmers who host the wildlife.”

Skagit Valley should lean more into winter tourism to help bird-induced losses, said Andrew Miller, a tulip farmer and relatively new arrival on the Skagit farming scene. One change that would help everyone would be to add more infrastructure to support visitors, Miller said. Pull-offs and parking now are limited, and public restrooms are sparse. “No one wants to lose farmland to a parking lot. But there are growers who would love for someone to bring in gravel and make some pull-outs.”

Building interpretive centers and clear, helpful signs around the valley would help visitors sightsee responsibly, said photographer Hoffman of Skagit Audubon. “We need to think locally about how to host in a way that’s going to help create good observers,” she said.

Added Miller, “This tension is an opportunity for us to problem-solve.” The birds are here for four months, so “it would behoove us to be welcoming when the birders come,” he said. “We are 80 miles from [three]-and-a-half million people who love getting outside. I think it’s a huge opportunity for us.”

Embracing tourism thoughtfully could also provide more chances for the agricultural community to get its own story out and drum up awareness of and support for farmland preservation. Morrison, the farmer, already gently educates when he encounters birders by the roadside. “I’ll talk to the people and just encourage them to understand why the geese are here: because there are farms, not malls and warehouses.”

Despite tensions, visitors and residents are not so different. They both are drawn to the serenity of the place, the beauty of the wildlife. The opportunity for positive encounters hasn’t slipped away. “I get a lot of photographers [who] come in here, and I’ll just go out and visit with them, and man, we have some nice chats,” said Axelson.

Two things are certain in Skagit Valley right now. One is that the valley is stuck with the snow geese for the foreseeable future, barring a decimating disease or dramatic change to their habitat here. “Once they make a major change, it sticks,” said Boyd, the biologist. If anything, their numbers seem likely to grow, he said.

The other certainty is how much people love this place, and how protective they feel toward it. In a divided age, in which few sides seem to agree on anything, that unifying love for “the magic Skagit” may yet be the key to finding a path forward, no matter how tangled the situation.

“I’ll talk to the people and just encourage them to understand why the geese are here: because there are farms, not malls and warehouses.”

— Darrin Morrison, Skagit Valley farmer

Header video credit: Video by Blackbox Guild (Shutterstock),  Nancy Crowell, and TriumphRainbow (Shutterstock)

Rebecca Dzombak

Lauren Owens Lambert

Rebecca Dzombak is a freelance science writer and editor in Washington state, covering animals, ecosystems, and conservation. Her work appears in National Geographic, The New York Times, Scientific American and other outlets. She holds a Ph.D. in Earth and environmental science.

Nancy Crowell

Lauren Owens Lambert

Nancy K. Crowell is an award-winning photographer and writer based in La Conner, Washington. Having lived in the area for more than two decades, she never leaves her house without her cameras, a hat and muck boots because you never know what you might see on the way to the grocery store. Consequently, it can take her an extraordinarily long time to run errands. Follow her on Instagram @crowellwildlife.

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