By H. Ted Upgren Jr.
A toiling procession scuds through a December snowfall like lightly penciled lines on drab paper. The large geese are looking for open ground and food. Despite the weather, they like it here, and we can’t resist pausing to watch them wing confidently through a sullen sky.
I can’t watch long before I think of Forrest Lee, a humble man who played a leading role in the restoration of this grand goose, Branta canadensis maxima. Long retired as a biologist with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Lee sat atop a one-horse cultivator on his father’s North Dakota farm in the 1920s, marveling at the flights of geese even then absent of many giant Canadas.
Educated at St. Cloud State University in the 1940s, Forrest went on to teach in Guckeen, Minn. A World War II veteran, the GI Bill funded his master’s degree at the University of Minnesota. Later, in the 1950s, as waterfowl research director for the Minnesota Conservation Department, he strived to re-establish the Canada goose as a resident breeder. He worked with large geese (some he suspected were B. c. maxima). Although the existence of the giant Canada had not been re-established, its extinction was widely accepted.
“The giant goose appears to be extinct,” said Dr. Jean T. Delacour in his 1954 work, “Waterfowl of the World.”
The American Ornithologists Union stated such in 1957.
In 1961, Wilbur Boldt, deputy commissioner of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, said, “The extinct giant Canada goose which sometimes weighed over 20 pounds was a prize”
A Missouri observer also lamented, “There can be no memorial to Missouri’s goose [B. c. maxima], hypocritically dating the passing of the ‘last’ of the race. We do not know when the last one fell.”
In 1962, geese at Silver Lake in Rochester, Minn., caught Forrest’s eye. He invited employees of the Illinois Natural History Survey, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and USFWS to meet at Silver Lake on a cold January day to trap, band and weigh a sample of that flock.
Harold Hanson of the INHS didn’t believe the scales; they were recording some “impossible weights.” The inventive team checked the scales by purchasing packages of flour and sugar, verifying their weights on a commercial grocer’s scale before comparing the results to the weight of the items on the goose scales. The goose scales were correct. They were dealing with a very large race of goose. But what race? After further taxonomic scrutiny Hanson concluded the Rochester flock had to be B. c. maxima.
In 1965, Harvey Nelson, first director of the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center in Jamestown, N.D., convinced Forrest to leave Minnesota to head up the giant Canada restoration program at the Center. Breeding stock was obtained from noted propagator, Carl E. Strut, of Jamestown. Lyle Schoonover, manager of Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge, provided eggs from a flock he started in 1963.
Soon Forrest had 64 breeding pairs of Canadas. Progeny wild releases were supervised by the late NDGFD waterfowl biologist, Charles Schroeder, and later by current NDGFD waterfowl biologist Mike Johnson. By 1981, more than 6,000 geese had been released at 83 sites in 26 counties. The giant Canada blossomed in North Dakota and other parts of the nation. The restoration ranks as a classic wildlife management success.
In 1982, Forrest assisted with restoration efforts of the Aleutian Canada goose, spearheaded by the Japanese Association for Wild Geese Protection in cooperation with the Russian Institute of Biological Problems of the North, which prompted the creation of a USFWS Aleutian Canada Goose Recovery Team, in which Forrest was immersed up to his neck.
In 1983, members of the Japanese association, including Masayuki Kurechi, frequent communicators with Forrest, visited him in Jamestown. A colleague of Forrest’s said, “Oh, you’re the people here to visit Father Goose.”
Whereupon Kurechi replied, “If that is so, then I must be Son Goose.”
Henceforth, the affectionate titles appeared in all their correspondence.
But international bureaucracy ran wild, and it wasn’t until 1992 that Forrest was airborne with 19 captive-reared Aleutians on a long flight to an original breeding habitat on the Russian peninsula of Kamchatka. In 1998, far to the south, Kurechi reported that 13 Aleutian Canada geese were observed in a rice paddy near the city of Furukawa, Japan. Production and migration had succeeded.
At 90 years old, Forrest still lives in Jamestown with his wife, Janet. We exchange Christmas cards, his handwriting unchanged over the years. But changed forever, because of his efforts, is the promise of giant Canadas in December Dakota skies.
By H. Ted Upgren Jr.