Canada geese almost vanished in the 1950s

When you see flocks of giant Canada geese in just about every park and golf course these days, it's hard to believe that just 50 years ago, the birds were believed to have vanished from the state of Wisconsin.

"A lot of people don't realize how seriously the goose population had declined," said Bill Volkert, wildlife educator and naturalist with the Department of Natural Resources at Horicon. "In the 1950s, the migratory flock of Canada geese was in trouble and we thought the locally breeding giant Canada geese were extinct."

Today, both Canada goose populations are thriving, and Horicon Marsh was integral to the process.

Restoration of the vast 32,000-acre wetland, which had been ditched and drained in the early 1900s, began in 1927 when the marsh became Wisconsin's first officially designated wildlife area.

"It was the duck hunters who pushed to make it that," Volkert said.

Ducks were the original focus, but Canada geese - both the migrants and locally breeding geese - also began to benefit from the restoration.

The migrating geese at Horicon went from just 800 in the 1940s to a quarter of a million birds by the mid-1970s, Volkert said.

"Today we're trying to hold down the number to 200,000 on the marsh," he said. "It's the largest flock of migratory Canada geese in the world."

In 1957, Volkert said, the DNR started trying to restore a locally nesting giant Canada goose population at Horicon with captured remnant wild birds and birds obtained from game breeders. Today, you don't have to look very hard to see how successful that effort was.

The story of Horicon Marsh is one that needs to be better understood, Volkert believes.

To that end, construction is expected to begin in August or September on a $4.8 million Horicon Marsh International Education Center.

The center, which is expected to be completed in 2008, is an expansion and renovation of the current DNR service center located off Highway 28, between Horicon and Mayville, on the east side of the marsh in Dodge County.

When completed, the 24,000-square foot building will have exhibits, displays, an auditorium and audio-visual center, classrooms and lab space where school children and others can have hands-on learning experiences.

"We want to make sure that when people come here, they really understand what Horicon Marsh is," Volkert said. "This has been a hunting ground since the end of the Ice Age. We'll be talking about the history of hunting on the marsh, from market hunting and private hunting clubs in the late 1800s."

The center also will have a permanent museum with exhibits on American Indian and settlement days and explanations of the marsh as an eco-system. The marsh is home to 296 species of birds and is the largest nesting area for redhead ducks in the eastern United States.

More than 500,000 people visit the marsh each year.

"Whether you're a duck, goose or deer hunter or a person with a camera or binoculars, wildlife is the draw," Volkert said.

The center, which will offer a spectacular view of the marsh, will function as both a destination and gateway, where in addition to viewing the exhibits, visitors can pick up maps and other information.

A Friends of the Horicon Marsh International Education Center was formed in 1994 to help raise money for the building project. "We still need to raise about $150,000," Volkert said.