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Breakthrough for European nature management

Promoting the interests of agriculture and protecting nature are often conflicting agendas.

Pinkfooted geese. Photo: Magnus Elander
Pinkfooted geese. Photo: Magnus Elander

But it doesn’t have to be this way: as the first European experiment with adaptive management of the pink-footed goose shows, government authorities, researchers, hunters, farmers and nature conservation societies can actually work together effectively and flexibly. This successful management plan, which is coordinated by Aarhus University, may become a model for wildlife management, for example in relation to endangered species.

The recent history of the pink-footed goose is in many ways a nature conservation success story that has turned into a nature conservation nuisance. The Svalbard pink-footed goose population breeds on Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, and winters in Denmark, the Netherlands and Belgium. Forty years ago, the pink-footed goose population had fallen to under 20,000 individuals. Since then, due to restrictions on hunting, numbers have increased to over 80,000. This large population has not only become a threat to Svalbard’s fragile tundra ecosystem. The geese also cause major damage to farmers’ crops along their migratory route down the coast of northern Europe from Norway to Belgium.  

Agreement on target population size

In light of this development, in 2012, the pink-footed goose was selected as the target species for the first European attempt to develop and implement and international adaptive wildlife management plan, the first management plan under the African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbird Agreement (AEWA). DCE - Danish Centre for Environment and Energy at Aarhus University was selected to coordinate the plan, and the results are already very promising:  

“As something entirely new in European waterfowl management, an agreement was reached on a target population size - in this case, to stabilise the population at about 60,000 individuals. It appears that we’ll achieve that goal within just a few years,” explains Professor Jesper Madsen of Aarhus University.  

A difficult task

Getting so many different stakeholders from several different countries - farmers, hunters, government authorities, nature conservation groups - to agree on anything at all in the arena of nature management is a huge challenge. Add to this the research-related challenges of monitoring population levels, breeding, survival and hunting rates, and the task begins to seem insurmountable. Nonetheless, the strategy of using adaptive harvest management to regulate the size of the pink-footed goose population, which was launched in the summer of 2013, is well on the way to success, explains Madsen:  

“The target population size is to be maintained by hunting, and the number of geese to be harvested will be adjusted up and down in an agreement between Denmark and Norway. The issue of how many geese should be harvested is very sensitive, and the adjustments will be made on the basis of a mathematical model. It’s important not to over-harvest, but agreements that make it possible to put on the emergency brakes are in place,” explains Madsen.  

The future of endangered species management

In Denmark, only the length of the hunting season is regulated, while Norway is attempting to introduce hunting quotas for pink-footed geese. Any unused hunting quotas can be transferred to Denmark. For the time being, Belgium and the Netherlands have elected to forbid hunting of pink-footed geese. 

Madsen believes that the successful application of adaptive management to the pink-footed goose can serve as a model for the future management of endangered species. 

“We’ve improved our learning curve significantly with the pink-footed goose. The principles of adaptive management are definitely applicable - even when it comes to endangered species. For example, an attempt is now being made to develop an adaptive management plan for the marsh fritillary, an endangered butterfly species.  In this case, it’s a matter of optimising management to protect and maintain local populations and link fragmented habitat areas.”

About adaptive wildlife management 

Adaptive management is an approach to structuring decision-making processes to ensure that animal populations and their habitats are managed flexibly and effectively. A high level of uncertainty can be associated with understanding and predicting biological systems. Adaptive management addresses this problem by bringing wildlife managers, users and researchers together to set goals and evaluate the results of individual management initiatives, for example a particular goal for population size. This allows a progressive adaptation of the management programme as it progresses.

AEWA pink-footed goose management plan  

Contact: Professor Jesper Madsen, phone +45 8715 8692, jm@bios.au.dk
              DCE - Danish Centre for Environment and Energy
              Department of Bioscience, Aarhus University /