The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has determined that the continental population of Canada geese is up 14 percent from last year, and the segment of that population that uses the Atlantic Flyway is up 7 percent.
One might assume those are encouraging signs for Maryland hunters, whose seasons and bag limits have been declining since the late 1980s.
But the situation is not quite what it might seem.
William F. Harvey, of the Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Division, said last week that while the adult population is up a little, the number of juveniles flying south this fall will be disappointing.
Harvey, who for the second successive year was part of the three-man team surveying breeding populations and conditions this summer on the Ungava Peninsula in northern Quebec, said the number of breeding pairs of Canada geese was down about 55 percent from last year.
"Last year we estimated there were 91,000 breeding pairs. This year we estimated 40,000," said Harvey, who flew over three regions of the Ungava Peninsula from June 21 to July 1. ". . . We also estimated the total population. And while that number was up 7 percent, we basically saw a similar number of birds, but the portion that was nesting was far fewer."
Even though this year's breeding survey was taken a week later than last year's, Harvey said the prime breeding areas for Atlantic Flyway Canada geese had had a late thaw, especially on the Ungava Bay side of the peninsula.
"When that spring melt occurs is probably more critical for these [Atlantic Flyway] Canada geese than for anywhere else in the country," Harvey said, "because they are the most northerly nesting Canada geese."
A late thaw puts the geese at an immediate disadvantage, Harvey said, because the young have to be able to fly out before the subarctic breeding grounds reach sub-freezing temperatures.
"Most of these geese aren't hatching until about July 19, and that is pretty late, because it takes 60 or 70 days for a gosling to sustain flight," Harvey said, "and by the third week in September it can freeze again."
What that means for hunters is that once the season opens in Maryland, the birds available to be taken will be largely adults of breeding age.
In years with good hatches, the impact of the hunting season is absorbed largely by birds that are younger than 3 years old, leaving a larger percentage of breeders to return to northern Quebec the next spring.
"It is extremely important that we do not over-harvest breeding pairs," said Joshua Sandt, director of DNR's Wildlife Division. "We need those pairs to return to the breeding grounds, and the only way to keep from over-harvesting is to reduce the number of hunting days."
If the breeders are regularly taken out of the population, then it becomes increasingly difficult to increase or even sustain numbers of migratory Canada geese in Maryland and the rest of the flyway.
For this fall, DNR has proposed two possible season structures for Canada geese -- 39hunting days between Nov. 21 and Jan. 14 at one goose per day, or 30 hunting days between Nov. 23 and Jan. 7 with the season separated into periods with limits of one or two birds per day.
Both are designed to limit the kill to 15 percent of the state population and help migratory Canada geese numbers to build to 400,000. The midwinter count this year was 260,300. In the early 1980s, the midwinter population was estimated to be about 500,000.
Harvey's work in the subarctic focuses on numbers of breeding pairs, but also provides a better look at the migratory population than the traditional midwinter count in Maryland.
"The reason we have gone to the breeding grounds is that up until now the population status of Canada geese has been established during the winter count, and that has been pretty good until recently," Harvey said. "But the increase in resident [non-migratory] geese in this flyway has really made it difficult to interpret these winter counts."
The problem is that in midwinter migratory and nonmigratory populations mix and are counted as a lump sum.
"We know for sure that while the counts in the flyway have been going down, the counts that we do of resident geese in the summer have been going right out the roof," Harvey said. "So it leads us to believe that in reality the migrant flock is going down at even a faster rate than the winter counts indicate.
"We have gone to the breeding grounds to get away from these resident geese and get a truer picture of our migrant population."