Maryland's Department of Natural Resources wants to cut the hunting season for migratory Canada geese to as few as 18 days this fall and winter, a reduction of 65 percent from last season.
The cutback is necessary to maintain a viable population of Canada geese in the state, Joshua Sandt, director of DNR's Wildlife Division, said yesterday.
The announcement hit hard on the Eastern Shore, where many businesses rely on hunters for economic survival. "I'd rather have been told my wife was cheating on me. I'd like that better than this," said Roger Dye, owner of the Sportsman Service Center on Kent Island.
This past season, 52 hunting days were allowed between Nov. 16 and Jan. 20.
Each fall, the geese migrate down the Atlantic Flyway from breeding grounds in Northern Quebec. Mr. Sandt explained that eight years of below-average reproduction in Canada have limited the number of young birds in the migration, and too many of those killed here are adults.
"We are whittling away at our breeders," he said, "and that is what we have to protect."
But the goose-hunting industry already is in disarray after four years of restrictive regulations, businessmen say.
"They've already practically killed it now," said Morris Jones, executive director of the Queen Anne's County Chamber of Commerce. "If this doesn't ring a death knell, I don't know what will."
The industry includes guides and outfitters, hotel and motel operators, sporting goods store owners and picking houses.
The proposed cutback was viewed by one legislative leader as too drastic. "I think it's outrageous," said House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr.
The Kent County Democrat, noting that Delaware and Pennsylvania have longer seasons and kill more geese, said it made no sense for Maryland to take such unilateral action. He said he would rather see some type of education program.
"There's plenty of time to come up with a compromise," he said.
Kent County guide Clint Evans, who has earned a living taking out hunting parties for the past 15 years, said he is sympathetic with the goals of the DNR proposal.
"I don't want to kill every goose," he said. "I want my kids to be able to at least see geese. I hope some day they'll be able to hunt them."
The economic benefits of a goose season are hard to quantify, but DNR officials said that fewer hunters are spending fewer dollars as the waterfowl population declines.
In 1986, for example, hunters of all kinds of waterfowl pumped $40 million into the state. In the past seven years, the number of hunters has dropped by 30 percent.
Yesterday's announcement surprised many in the goose-hunting business, who are accustomed to hearing of the DNR's proposed season limits later in the year.
"I think it is a good move for everybody to know what we are thinking, instead of waiting until July or August," said Mr. Sandt.
Since 1989, Maryland's goose season has been split with one bird per day allowed in the early portion and two birds allowed per day in the latter part of the season.
The current proposal, which must be submitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for approval, would set a one-goose daily limit. The season would run from Nov. 22 to Nov. 26 and from Dec. 18 to Jan. 1, excluding Sundays and the opening of deer firearms season on Saturday, Nov. 27.
There is a possibility the season could be lengthened before its duration becomes final in late July or August. But even under the best circumstances, Mr. Sandt said, the season could be no longer than 28 days with a limit of one bird per day.
The Fish and Wildlife Service probably will not object to Maryland's proposal, Mr. Sandt said.
The DNR's mid-winter survey of Maryland waterfowl, taken each year after the close of Canada goose season, counted 234,400 birds, the lowest total in the state since 1963.
This past season, adult birds made up more than 95 percent of the kill. Twelve to 20 years ago, when Maryland's Canada goose population was consistently above 500,000, adult birds usually made up less than 50 percent of the kill.