BY FRED JAMES

Special to THE TIMES NEWS

Although the opening of Pennsylvania's spring gobbler season is eight weeks away, hunters right now have the opportunity to pursue some big birds.

No not that big yellow bird, but rather thousands of big, white birds whose overabundant population is threatening their own and other waterfowl breeding grounds.

Waterfowl hunters have a special opportunity to take snow geese in Pennsylvania through April 26 because of the Conservation Snow Goose Season established by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

A Conservation Order is a special management action authorized by the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act to control certain wildlife populations when traditional management programs are unsuccessful in reducing overabundant wildlife populations.

Populations of snow geese and Ross geese, which are collectively referred to as "light geese" because of their white plumage, have reached levels that are causing extensive and possibly irreversible damage to their, as well as other nesting birds, fragile arctic and sub-arctic tundra breeding grounds.

Large numbers of snow geese feeding on natural vegetation can also destroy large areas of coastal marshland during migration and winter.

Serious damage to agricultural crops, such as hay, winter wheat, barley and rye, occurs on migration and wintering areas as well. Returning the snow goose population to sustainable levels is necessary to protect this delicate habitat and every species dependent on it.

In the Atlantic Flyway, the population of light geese, composed mostly of "greater" snow geese, increased from approximately 50,000 birds in the mid 1960s to approximately one million birds in recent years.

Most of these birds pass through Pennsylvania during spring and fall migrations and spend the winter in New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland.

Waterfowl managers concerned about the impacts of too many snow geese, have recommended a population goal of 500,000 in the Atlantic Flyway, and the only practical way to reduce the population to that level is to increase annual hunter kill, which in recent years has averaged nearly 180,000 birds in the U.S. and Canadian portions of the Atlantic flyway.

Pennsylvania's snow goose harvest has been steadily increasing over the past decade averaging about 13,000 per year, and during the 2012 Snow Goose Conservation Season, a reported 568 active Pennsylvania hunters took 3,420 snow geese.

This conservation season has been designed not to threaten the long-term status of the snow geese, as waterfowl managers monitor the status of snow geese annually to insure the population is not overharvested.

Pennsylvania has had a long hunting season, consisting of 107 days, for many years, but until recently federal regulations did not allow the season to be open after March 10, when large numbers of snow geese begin migrating north from their wintering areas.

From mid-February to late March, more than 100,000 snow geese may spend time in Pennsylvania, fueling up for their return to the arctic breeding grounds in May.

Peak numbers occur in early March, with major concentration areas located in Lancaster and Lebanon counties, with lesser number in Berks, Lehigh and Montour counties, and concern about the overabundance of snow geese has been growing for years.

An international "Arctic Goose Habitat Working Group" concluded in 1998 that action was needed to limit the greater snow goose population.

A goal of 500,000 birds has since been established for the Atlantic Flyway, but it took more than a decade to fully implement the recommendations of this group.

In November 2008, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finalized rules establishing a Conservation Order and allowing the use of special hunting methods to increase the taking of light geese across the country.

Under these regulations, Pennsylvania hunters, that have a general hunting license, Federal Duck Stamp if older than 16 years of age, a Pennsylvania Migratory Bird License and a Pennsylvania snow goose conservation permit are required to participate in the season.

Modified regulations allow for the use of recorded or electrically amplified calls or sounds, electronic decoys powered or operated by batteries, hunting hours are from 12 hour before sunrise to 12 hour after sunset and the daily bag limit is 25 birds.

Hunters may obtain their free permit and report card online at the Pennsylvania Game Commission website at http://www.pgc.state.pa.us/.