DNR details goose hunting limits Urges strict curbs for 2 to 3 years


March 21, 1993

EASTON -- Some 150 people gathered at Easton High School last Thursday night for the Department of Natural Resources' Wildlife Division public meetings on proposed hunting seasons for 1993-1994. Fully a third of those in attendance were vitally interested in the dates and limits proposed for migratory Canada geese.

Yes, they were told, in a worst-case scenario the season would be as short as 18 days with a one-bird limit. At best, the season might be as long as 30 days with a one-bird limit.

Yes, they were told, if goose hunting is held within those limits then many commercial hunting outfits would be out of business for a time.

DNR's thinking is that the only way to rebuild a goose population that fell to 234,400 in the mid-winter survey is to severely cut back or close the hunting season.

"Our concern is at what level does the population have to be before you either need to close the season or you get so low that it is going to take a long time to increase the population," said Joshua Sandt, director of the Wildlife Division. "Our thinking right now is that figure is 200,000 birds.

"Our thinking -- and I won't say that our thinking is right -- is that we would suggest that we take very strict measures for two to three years and get the population back up instead of minimally increasing it over 10 to 12 years."

The key to the success of a short season is a cut in the kill rate from 20 percent to 10 percent to offset eight years of poor reproduction and high kill rates of breeding-age geese.

At 20 percent, more birds are killed than have been added on an annual average over the past several years. With a 10 percent kill rate and average reproduction, DNR figures the goose population could be at 400,000 in five years.

But what happens in the meantime is a matter of concern to sportsmen and outfitters. All in attendance Thursday night seemed to be primarily concerned with rebuilding the goose population.

So, why not simply close the season and let the geese rebuild as quickly as possible?

A closure is a distant possibility. It's also possible that more hunting days may be added at the August hearings.

"Eighteen days is a minimum," Sandt said. "If we happen to have above average reproduction, we can still stay at this 10 percent harvest rate but we would have more birds coming back and we would be able to add days to the end of the season."

The 18-day season is based on a returning population of 280,000 geese and a potential kill of 28,000 birds. If, for example, 350,000 geese returned after a good breeding season this summer, then the parameters could change in proportion to the population.

"We are killing a little over 1,000 birds a day after the first week [of the season]," Sandt said. "In the first week we are closer to 2,000 birds per day."

At 350,000 birds, the season could be as long as 30 days, but the bag limit would remain at one.

For this past goose season, the kill rate has been estimated at 10 percent, so Maryland hunters have not been cutting a swath through the population. The question then is, where are the birds?

Are they shortstopping? Are they overflying? Are they being killed elsewhere, starting with native subsistence hunting in Canada and working down and back up the Atlantic Flyway?

Shortstopping, the term for birds that shorten their migration and stay north of us rather than return to the Chesapeake region, does not seem to be a factor.

A six-year neck collar showed that 90 percent of the collared birds came back to Maryland each year if they were still alive. In fact, only 70 percent of the birds that were collared in Pennsylvania, New York and other states north of us returned there.

"In fact, birds marked in Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey were three times more likely to winter the next year in the Chesapeake region. . . ." said Larry Hindman, director of Maryland's migratory bird program. "So, the Chesapeake is the big draw."

Hunting elsewhere in the flyway also has been restricted through an agreement made last August that called for a 60-percent reduction in the average kill prior to 1988, when Maryland decided to go to a season with a split-bag limit. Last season, the states north of us also opened the season with a one-bird limit.

The kill rate in those states is in line with Maryland's estimate of 10 percent. So it seems that other states are doing their share.

Delaware, for example, has agreed to follow Maryland's lead and apparently is willing to cut its season from 40 days and one bird if there is another poor hatch.

The impact of subsistence hunting in Canada is harder to define. However, Sandt said, Canada is aware of the decline in the goose population and agrees that steps need to be taken so that it can rebuild.

"We can't make them do it," Sandt said. "But we can sure put a lot of pressure on them, and the flyway council is doing that.

"The only thing we can do is control the harvest here in Maryland and the Chesapeake region."

DNR also expects to get some first-hand knowledge from the breeding grounds in northern Quebec this summer after several years of relying on satellite weather data.

"We will be flying the nesting grounds this year," Sandt said. "We have a formal study proposed, and to the best that I know right now, one of our waterfowl biologists will be the representative from the United States."

That international survey will take place in June, and biologists will know almost immediately whether it will be a good or bad breeding year.

Last summer was the worst breeding season ever because ice and snow covered the breeding grounds well into June.

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