Figures on Canada geese up in air


November 21, 1993|By PETER BAKER | PETER BAKER,U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The hunting season for Canada geese in Maryland opens tomorrow, and while guides and hunters will have their blinds and gear ready, there probably are more questions about this 35-day season than any before -- and perhaps fewer early answers as well.

In past years, an aerial survey in early November would have provided the Department of Natural Resources with an idea of the size of the fall flight south from northern Quebec, and the word would be out -- good or bad.

This year, because of informational, economic and scientific considerations, the DNR chose not to make the November survey, and the size and makeup of Maryland's winter population of migratory Canada geese remains a question.

All of which may seem odd, because last year's winter population of 234,000 was the lowest on record in 30 years and prompted an initial proposal for an 18-day hunting season this year.

Only a good deal of 11th-hour negotiating last September increased the season to 35 days, during the first 20 days of which hunters will be limited to one Canada goose per day.

After interviews with guides and DNR biologists over the past week, one gets the impression that the hatch was good on the Ungava Peninsula. But no one is willing to say exactly how good.

Bill Harvey, manager of DNR's waterfowl program and who spent 10 days surveying the Quebec nesting grounds late last spring, said, "I don't know, and I wouldn't even hazard a guess at this point."

Ray Marshall, a longtime guide on the Eastern Shore, said, "It looks like there are more birds, but it's real hard to put together any kind of real good guesstimate overall."

Joshua Sandt, director of DNR's Wildlife Division, said that there are more birds here now than there were last year, but that the November population is not necessarily representative of Maryland's winter population.

"When you look at the goose population, you are seeing a lot of young birds out there," Sandt said. "So we know we have had a fairly good hatch. Now, what that actually means in numbers of birds, it would be hard to even guess."

With the November survey it was always possible to guess, and Sandt said taking the guesswork out of the population figures played a large part in ending the early aerial surveys.

"We may be sending out the wrong message if we go out and say there are 450,000 or 500,00 birds out there," Sandt said. "Is that possible, even with a very good hatch? I doubt it."

Sandt said this year's population will exceed last year's 30-year low, and Harvey said that unofficial estimates from Quebec, where hunting started late in September, indicate there are "considerably more young birds than last year."

Sandt questions how many of those young birds and their parents will winter in Maryland, because geese tend to overfly in their migration.

"So, some of the birds that may end up in Delaware, New Jersey or Pennsylvania may come to the Chesapeake first," Sandt said. "Their homing skills are not so finite that they know exactly when to come down.

"The Chesapeake Bay is probably the key, or it may be a distance factor: They fly so far and then just come down. Then you start looking for what area they know is their winter home range, and it takes a lot of time to find that."

If there are large numbers of birds coming into the Chesapeake region and then leaving for their true winter ranges, Sandt said, then it is inevitable that there will be disagreements among guides, hunters, conservationists and biologists because the figures never add up.

"That is part of our problem with credibility, people were saying, 'Well, if you are counting them in November and then counting them in January and add the kill to it, the two should balance out,' " Sandt said. "Well, it just doesn't work that way."

Sandt and Harvey agree that the DNR now will base its management decisions on the January count, which is taken after the hunting season closes, and the nesting survey on the breeding grounds that Harvey took part in last spring.

The November survey never had been a major factor in management decisions, Harvey said, but the figures often provided interesting correlations to the January counts.

But when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided to pull its two pilots and two planes out of the November survey by next year, Sandt said, Maryland decided its money could be spent better elsewhere.

DNR will start getting an idea of the ratio of young to adults once the season starts, as Chesapeake Wildlife Heritage gathers tail feathers from the picking houses. Harvey said the group's running tally has been an accurate gauge of population makeup.

A high ratio of young birds to adults is important for many reasons, most prominent of which are that young birds are more easily called in to hunters and killing subadult birds will keep the breeding population intact.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.