Shorter season may go long way zTC Numbers back limit on Canada geese


August 15, 1993|By PETER BAKER

Canada geese serve many masters in Maryland, but they in turn are ultimately controlled by only one, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has the final say on any proposals that may impact the number of Canada geese anywhere in the country.

For this fall and winter, the USFWS says that Maryland's waterfowl managers may construct hunting seasons and bag limits within the following parameters: the season may run a total of 60 days between Nov. 16 and Jan. 20, and the bag limit must be one bird per day for the first 20 days and two per day thereafter.

Maryland proposed on Thursday to take advantage of only 30 days (27 hunting days) and to permit a one-bird limit throughout.

State biologists say a short season is necessary so that Maryland's portion of the Atlantic Flyway population may rebuild after eight years of poor reproduction on the nesting grounds in Northern Quebec.

Maryland's proposal raises a number of questions, only some of which can be answered because few truths are known.

* The midwinter count of Canada geese in Maryland was 234,000 last year, its lowest level since 1963.

* Since 1985, low gosling production has prevented the population from increasing.

* An annual average kill rate of 23 percent from 1988, when Maryland went to restricted seasons and split bag limits, through last season has reduced the kill on adult geese, but severe weather on the breeding grounds has kept the breeders from producing bumper crops of young.

* This spring and summer, based on a survey of breeding pairs and favorable weather on the Ungava Peninsula, the Atlantic population apparently will return to Maryland in great numbers this fall.

The Department of Natural Resources and the USFWS agree that the 1993 hatch has been above average. They also agree that one good hatch cannot offset the effects of eight successive poor hatches.

But while the USFWS is holding to the 60-day framework that was in effect last season, DNR is proposing to take a hard stand against possible poor hatches in the future.

The goal of the DNR is to rebuild the state population of Canada geese to 400,000 birds by 1998, a level that was set in Maryland's Canada Goose Management Plan, which was developed by a citizen panel of waterfowl hunters and managers.

But now that the Canada geese numbers have plummeted, and it may seem prudent to further restrict the annual kill, those who may have business interests in the dwindling goose hunting industry are not in such a hurry to reach the 400,000 figure that could trigger an expansion of the goose season.

R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., the Eastern Shore legislator who counts a large number of hunters, guides and landowners among his constituency, wants as many as 45 days, with one bird for the first 20 days and two for the last 25.

"A goose is a goose, is a goose," he said Thursday evening after DNR announced its proposed season. "If there are problems with numbers of geese on the Eastern Shore, there apparently are none on the Western Shore, where there will be a September season on resident birds this fall."

Mitchell added that perhaps the nuisance birds that cannot be easily hunted should be trapped and transplanted to the Eastern Shore to bolster migratory geese numbers.

The state's population of resident Canada geese is between 15,000 and 20,000, less than 10 percent of the lowest midwinter population of migratory birds in 30 years.

Could that number justify the expense of trapping and transplanting? Waterfowl managers for DNR said Thursday that it could not.

But Mitchell is not wrong in his advocacy of a longer season. He is serving his constituency and also interested in protecting the birds.

If the cost of a longer hunting season can be measured in the few more years it would take to reach 400,000, then perhaps Mitchell's proposals are worth a closer look.

DNR is charged with serving the resource, and as such its biologists must rely on recent trends rather than trying to predict the future.

If, for example, this year's good hatch is followed by another good hatch, then Maryland's flock could be close to recovery.

But if the young birds that will fly in early this fall are heavily hunted this year or in any of the next three years before they reach breeding age, then the effects will be hard to offset, no matter what the hatch is like.

The key to developing and maintaining a healthy flock is to have a breeding population that can be explosive in the good years and maintain a respectable success rate in the poor years.

So, should Maryland opt to protect and conserve the resource, or go for the gold?

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