The Welfare Scam at Blackwater Refuge

ANNE STINSON

October 06, 1992|By ANNE STINSON

EASTON — Easton.--Moochers. Lazy bums who feed at the public trough. Welfare cheats. The majestic Canada geese, lolling out summer days at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, are running a scam. They're not doing what they're supposed to do, and they're mucking up things for their law-abiding brethren.

The laws of goose behavior are fairly simple. In the lengthening days of March, they yield to the imperatives of nature. It's time to get serious about parenthood, and they gear up for the long trek to their summer breeding grounds, the Ungava Peninsula on Canada's upper Hudson Bay. There they spend the summer nesting and rearing their young to adolescence. At the end of that brief five-month period, the new generation will be almost as large as their handsome parents and ready to join the 2,000-mile flight back to the flat, fertile fields and marshes of Chesapeake Bay country, their winter home.

For many of the geese, the ideal winter accommodations are at Blackwater, where wildlife biologists of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service prepare a virtual food pantry. It's a safe place, free from hunting pressure, for the birds to rest and feed. That's the federal mandate responsible for this 11,000-acre tract of marshlands and loblolly pine forests set aside in 1933, one of a chain of national waterfowl refuges along the Atlantic flyway.

On areas of high ground, the biologists plant corn, clover, wheat and millet to supplement the vast tracts of natural food, predominantly Olney three-square sedge. Geese and muskrats relish it, munching its stems and roots. Corn is left standing in the fields so enough will last through February, the most stressful time. Refuge managers also do controlled burning of dry sedge marshes in winter. Fire encourages new growth of fresh green shoots which are welcome as a spring salad tonic for geese and, incidentally, keeps them from raiding nearby farmers' fields of winter wheat.

Note that all the preparations are designed to accommodate the winter migrants.

The problem is, some geese have learned to manipulate the system. It's almost as if they checked out the situation and thought, do we really want to fly 2,000 miles, build a nest in a neighborhood where snow is not uncommon in June, risk having our eggs or goslings freeze, or get such a late start that we have to abandon the children to certain death because they're not old enough to make the return trip south? Some geese appear to conclude, Let's cancel the trip and just stay here for the summer. And more and more of them are deciding to do just that. In March they remain at the refuge and adjoining farms.

The laggards raid the emerging crops intended to feed their traditional kin, the geese that dutifully clear out from March to October. Before the crops have a chance to mature, the Canadas nip off new growth. They loaf in the summer sun and give not a thought for the morrow.

It gives the biologists fits. Nothing discourages the voracious browsers, not propane guns, not reflector tape, not even frustrated biologists chasing them on foot.

There's always an ''on the other hand.'' In this case it's the indisputable fact that the rebels reproduce successfully when nTC they opt to stay rather than follow the flock north. Of the 400 Canada geese that remained in residence at Blackwater, 40 nesting pairs raised 160 young. The others were immature birds -- Canadas don't breed until they're three or four years old -- or some were widows or widowers from the previous hunting season. Canadas mate for life.

Whatever their status, they taxed the best-laid plans of refuge biologists. To add to the problem, another 500 Canadas moseyed in after the nesting season from neighboring farms to seek protection during the period of their annual molt, a time when they lose some of their wing feathers and grow new ones. The geese are vulnerable to predators during this flightless period and spend their time either basking on open water in the marsh or -- what else? -- browsing in the fields.

Meanwhile, the family-values crowd, which continued to stick to the old ways, spent another discouraging summer on Hudson Bay. Weather conditions were terrible in northern Canada's nesting grounds and goose-watchers there report dismal ''recruitment,'' biologists' talk for reproduction rates.

The poor breeding season repeats a trend that began in the mid-1980s. In the mid-1970s, returning migrant geese in fall peaked at 600,000. Since the mid-1980s, the numbers have stuck at about 300,000. A series of cold, wet Canadian summers, combined with heavy hunting pressure in winter, has cut the population in half.

The Department of Natural Resources continues to impose tight restrictions on hunters: short seasons and abbreviated bag limits. Still, biologists worry about the decline in numbers. They struggle to make sure there's a handout for the returning geese.

As for the loafers that didn't bother to make the journey, there are mixed feelings. Biologists still don't know what to do about the deadbeats.

Anne Stinson is a free-lance writer.

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