Hey, Speaker Mitchell -- give geese a chance

ON THE BAY

August 28, 1993|By TOM HORTON

Suppose you had been living beyond your means for years when you hear you are about to get a windfall -- maybe enough that you could live reasonably well on the interest from it.

You have no guarantee of much other future income, and you have to decide by next Wednesday -- invest most of the windfall, or treat yourself to one more good year and trust the future to fate.

Maryland's government faces just such an imminent decision. If it were money we were talking about, neither the state nor most individuals would have trouble choosing the conservative course.

But we're talking geese here -- hundreds of thousands of wild Canadas that migrate each autumn to the Chesapeake; talking about how hard it still is for otherwise prudent people to respect natural capital.

We're also talking about whose geese they are, as state wildlife managers battle commercial hunting interests who are championed by the speaker of Maryland's House of Delegates.

For a long while, it seemed like the good times for goose hunters had no limits.

From populations of less than 200,000 in the '50s, Canadas in the bay region soared to as many as 700,000 during the 1970s and early '80s. Good weather in their northern Quebec breeding areas was the primary cause.

Maryland, where it was remark able to kill a single goose in the 1930s, expanded its season up to 90 days, allowing hunters to kill three a day.

On the crest of the boom arose a $70 million industry -- commercial hunting guides, bed and breakfasts and sporting goods stores catering to hunters. Leasing hunting rights brought in $2,000 to $20,000 a winter to farmers and landowners with grainfields where the geese fed. But by the mid-'80s, weather patterns had changed for the colder on the shores of Hudson Bay. This squeezed the already narrow window of ice-free Arctic summer in which the bay's geese must raise their broods.

In 1988, with wintering goose numbers down by nearly half, Maryland's Department of Natural Resources acted to change the only part of the equation it can control, the harvest by hunters.

Shorter seasons and smaller daily bag limits by 1992 had chopped the kill from a third of each winter's flock to about a fifth; but numbers continued falling, and the 1992 hatch of young geese in Canada was a virtual wipeout, the worst in decades of record keeping.

Last March DNR's wildlife division gave early warning to hunters and guides: they were considering a "worst case" cut of the allowed kill from 20 percent to 10 percent, shortening a season that once stretched through the fall and winter to 18 days, with a single goose allowed per day.

That was when the shooting started. The already beleaguered goose industry was outraged. Many happen to be supporters and constituents of R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., speaker of the House, whose upper Eastern Shore district includes the heart of the East coast's Canada population.

He has browbeaten top DNR officials and prevailed on Governor Schaefer to force the biologists into a more liberal season. The governor made a phone call recently, recounted secondhand by a DNR official as "supportive, but asking, couldn't we go a little higher . . . throw a bone to Clay?"

Done. The 18-day season re-emerged as 30 days, which translates to a kill rate of 14 percent instead of 10 percent, and is not so bad a compromise as it may sound.

That is because reports in June from the breeding grounds are for a good to excellent hatch, maybe the best since 1983. The true magnitude of it won't be known until the geese arrive this fall.

The biologists say such a bonus is a unique opportunity to restore the good old days of wild geese on the bay, if enough young are allowed to survive the three years needed to begin breeding.

To Speaker Mitchell and his supporters, it means DNR can afford to relax regulations, allowing a 45-day season. Half of that would include a two-goose-a-day limit, which guides argue is the only way to keep attracting lots of paying customers.

The speaker has threatened if he is stymied he will use his considerable legislative power next year to tie DNR's hands on goose management. He would make them follow the maximum harvests in broad, federal guidelines, never meant to be used as definitive rules for an individual state.

DNR has modeled all these scenarios to see how each would affect the state's goal of restoring the goose population to about 400,000 birds.

The choices, which assume continued, modest reproduction, are striking:

DNR's original, 18-day season would restore the geese by 1997; their present proposal by 1998.

By contrast, Mr. Mitchell's proposal would maintain the present, depressed population level; and using federal maximums would drive numbers down sharply to historic lows.

The Mitchell camp hotly disputes the data DNR uses for its

projections. It is not perfect, but far better than assumptions like this in a Mitchell statement: "This is the first of two [hopefully] consecutive successful breeding years."

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