Remoteness of Ungava Peninsula gives Canada geese best protection '93 hatch promising in unforgiving land

OUTDOORS

August 15, 1993|By Peter Baker | Peter Baker,Staff Writer

Two months ago, Bill Harvey was traveling the rim of Quebec's Ungava Peninsula in a single-engine plane, flying just above stall speed, 100 feet off the ground.

As Maryland's waterfowl project leader, Harvey's purpose at the northern edge of the civilized world was to gather information on nesting pairs of Canada geese that make up the Atlantic Flyway population.

In the process of counting nesting pairs while flying over 7,000 miles of a predetermined, 400-meter wide transects from lower Hudson Bay to Hudson Strait, Harvey learned firsthand something of the rugged environment that also is home to caribou and musk ox, arctic fox and bears, and the Cree and Inuit native peoples.

It is, he said during an interview at the state's Department of Natural Resources' regional Wildlife Division office in Wye Mills on Wednesday, an unforgiving landscape almost devoid of man except in small villages widely spaced along a coastline that is iced at least eight months a year.

"There is no one who lives inland," Harvey said. "There are no roads. They may travel to another village once a year or travel 150 miles or so by snowmobile before the thaw.

"We were there until June 23, and by that time the Inuit were out hunting seals. The river mouths were open, but there was still a band of ice a mile wide on Hudson Bay and there had been no big ships come in."

The life of the people above 52 degrees north is tied to sea routes or airplanes.

And for the future of the Canada goose, that may be very good indeed, because the remoteness of the area protects enormous tracts of land that include breeding grounds for ducks and geese.

Although Harvey flew transects through four regions defined as Canada goose nesting areas, the narrow, coastal plains along the eastern edge of Hudson Bay and around Ungava Bay on the eastern side of the peninsula held the highest densities of Canada geese.

"The southern edge of the area we flew is about 400 miles north of Montreal," Harvey said, "and everything from there north interests us.

"But the highest densities are on the edges of the Ungava Peninsula because in general that coastal area has the influence of the ocean so it warms up a lot quicker than the interior of the peninsula. On the coast, that is pretty much where the geese can get going earlier."

This year's nesting pairs survey -- a $36,000 (Canadian money) joint effort by the U.S. and Canadian governments -- that ran from June 12 to June 23, is not the first attempt to quantify the Atlantic Flyway population. In 1988, a similar, although less extensive, survey was made.

"What we were doing was to improve upon the 1988 survey," said Harvey, who was accompanied by a representative of the Canadian Wildlife Service and observers from local villages.

In the three regions other than the coastal lowlands, the numbers of nesting pairs of geese ranged from as few as one to five per 125-mile transect in the forested southern region to perhaps "four or five times that many" in the transition region between forest and true tundra.

Harvey said the northern interior of the Ungava Peninsula, where even the smallest ponds were still frozen on June 21, carried densities of nesting geese similar to the boreal forest region.

"In the high-density areas on the coast, on a 15-mile transect we were seeing sometimes 50 or 60 pairs," Harvey said. "They would nest on the edges of the small ponds or islands or just out on the tundra."

The coastal regions are a maze of ponds and sheets of standing water held out of the ground by the permafrost a few feet down.

It is perfect nesting habitat because, although the nesting birds live largely on reserves they have built up over the winter and on their way north, once the goslings hatch in July they need food immediately.

"The tundra is incredible. Once things warm up to where the plants can start to grow, it is just unbelieveable," Harvey said. "There is a tremendous flush in the growth of everything."

And 21 hours of daylight in the land of the midnight sun allows the goslings to feed practically all day.

There is, of course, a fine balance encountered on the breeding grounds, one that teeters on the whim of the weather and, in part, on the hunting prowess of the Inuit and Cree.

Among the concerns of Maryland hunters is whether the Inuit and Cree hurt the nesting populations with subsistence hunting and egg gathering that are not regulated by the Canadian government.

"They depend on wildlife for 100 percent of their fresh meat," Harvey said. "They still hunt whales and seals, caribou; they fish the char run in the fall and they hunt geese."

But the goose hunt is limited by natural factors. Without roads, the local people travel inland on snowmobiles -- and when the snow melts, the land travel stops.

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