Heavy harvests, harsh weather breed limited Canada goose plans


August 23, 1992|By PETER BAKER

Early last week, the Department of Natural Resources released its proposal for the 1992-93 Canada goose hunting seasons and limits in Maryland. The proposal is restrictive and will have an adverse impact on goose hunters and guides this year and at least for the next two years.

In brief, the proposal calls for 52 days of hunting spread over 60 calendar days, within which 18 days would be at a one-bird limit and 34 at a two-bird limit. The season splits are Nov. 16-Nov. 27, one bird; Dec. 4-Dec. 11, one bird; and Dec. 12-Jan. 20, two birds.

Hunters and guides who have leased land for goose hunting are no doubt already calculating their losses.

But before the gauntlets are thrown down and the need for or the wisdom of such regulations is challenged, a review of causes and effects is in order.

Canada geese are migrants, and the ones that we hunt are members of a population that winters here, flies mainly to northern Quebec to breed and raise its young along the upper eastern shore of Hudson Bay each spring and summer, and then flies south to winter again mainly in Delmarva.

The two major compounding factors are weather and hunting pressure. If there is a late spring at the head of the Atlantic Flyway in Quebec, then a poor breeding year may be expected. If there is too much hunting pressure in the flyway, then too large a kill may be expected.

When both poor breeding years and successful hunting seasons are combined, the survival rates of Canadas plummet.

"We can't control or manage what goes on on the breeding grounds, because it is largely weather-related, but we can control harvest," said Larry Hindman, manager of Maryland's migratory bird program.

"By controlling goose harvests, it has been demonstrated that you can improve survival. We have done that in Maryland since 1988. Our survival rates now are the highest in the flyway."

However, Hindman said, there has not been an especially successful breeding year on the Ungava Peninsula since 1983 ** and the ratio of immature birds to breeders has been heavily weighted toward breeders since 1985.

That might sound good in a way -- lots of breeders, you say, would have to result in lots of goslings, given good weather on the breeding grounds and good numbers of geese surviving to make the flight north each spring.

But what is happening is that without young birds in the fall flight south, the hunting pressure is directed toward the breeding stock, which in turn does not survive to fly north in the spring, and, given good weather, lay a good clutch of eggs and raise three or four goslings that will grow to join the next flight south.

The circle has been broken -- in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, down into the Carolinas and beyond.

The current management plan for the Atlantic Flyway is an attempt to again make the circle whole, and Maryland has little say in the matter because it must align its seasons within a framework set by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The USFWS, with the support of the Atlantic Flyway Council, has determined that a 60 percent reduction in the kill of Canada geese is necessary during the next three years to rebuild the population to 725,000.

The mid-winter survey of Canada geese this year estimated a flyway population of 655,000, the lowest in 23 years. Breeding conditions in northern Quebec this spring and summer were abysmal, with snow and ice cover extensive on June 20, more than a month after normal breeding would begin. The year will be a bust for goslings.

"[But] we feel that even in a good year, like last year when the lTC weather seemed to be favorable, we didn't get any improvement in the number of goslings produced," Hindman said. "That leads us to believe that the breeding population is much lower than it should be. That also is something we don't know."

So, here is an opening for argument -- why don't we know? And if we don't know, how can proper decisions be made?

To answer the second question first, the USFWS has been to the breeding grounds along with the Canada Wildlife Service and volunteers from various wildlife organizations. They say that they know and that Maryland must follow along.

To answer the first question, Hindman said Maryland is laying the groundwork to initiate its own breeding ground surveys, hopefully in 1993.

"We have just now opened the lines of communications with the native people in Quebec [who have limited access to the breeding grounds] to initiate some breeding ground surveys. . . . " Hindman said. "Then we will find out really what the size of the breeding component is.

"But right now we are really operating in a vacuum. . . . Most of our information is here on the wintering grounds."

Survival rate is, therefore, Maryland's primary measuring stick, and in the Atlantic Flyway the survival rate is about 70 percent on the average.

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