Countdown starts for Md. hunters


November 20, 1994|By PETER BAKER

This is the week that many Maryland hunters await eagerly each year.

On Tuesday, the four-day second split of duck season opens, followed on Wednesday by the start of a three-day, first split of Canada goose season. Saturday will be the opening day for the two-week modern-firearms season for deer.

Hunting grounds have been selected and scouted and the daily movements of does and bucks noted and cataloged. Rifles and slug guns have been cleaned and sighted-in and cleaned again.

Waterfowl decoys have been touched up, cords have been replaced or re-tied, hip boots or waders have been tested for leaks and duck and goose calls have been handled often.

Now it is a matter of waiting for any or all of three opening days that for Maryland hunters fall just on the near side of paradise.

The deer population is in excellent shape across the state, according to Department of Natural Resources game managers -- in some counties rivaling the biggest and heaviest whitetails on the East Coast.

The total fall flight of ducks was expected to be about 71 million, equal to the migrations of the early 1970s and the highest since 1983, and the Atlantic Flyway population of Canada geese, most of which winter in eastern Maryland and Delaware, appears to have increased over the 1993 count.

But while the state deer herd is doing exceptionally well, duck and Canada goose hunters may still face trouble on the road to paradise.

According to William F. Harvey of Maryland's Department of Natural Resources, the population of Canada geese still is 60 percent of the level that could support longer hunting seasons and bigger bag limits.

Harvey, who for each of the past two years has gone to northern Quebec to participate in a survey of Canada geese on their nesting grounds, found this year that the number of breeding pairs was 40,086, compared with 91,307 in 1993 and 118,031 in 1988.

The overall population of Atlantic Flyway Canada geese surveyed by Harvey's team was 258,332, up from 241,407 last year. Maryland's midwinter count showed 260,300, also up slightly from 1993, but including as many as 20,000 resident Canada geese, which do not migrate to the breeding grounds in Quebec.

There are several forces that impact the breeding dynamics of Maryland's migratory Canada geese, and the two primary ones are hunting and weather -- only one of which can be controlled.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service harvest survey, 59,925 Canada geese were killed and retrieved in Maryland last season, exclusive of the minimal kill during the September season for resident birds.

Joshua Sandt, director of DNR's Wildlife Division, said earlier this year that at that kill rate of 19 percent, even moderate breeding success will be offset annually because much of the hunting pressure is focused on sexually mature geese rather than juveniles.

Since the weather is beyond anyone's control, federal and state waterfowl managers have concentrated on limiting hunting opportunities and maintaining a one-bird bag limit through the first two splits of the season and allowing two per day in the third split.

The aim is to keep the kill percentage at 15 percent or lower until Maryland's population of migratory Canada geese rebuilds to 400,000, the figure set under Maryland's Canada Goose Management Plan.

With moderate breeding success and a 15 percent kill rate, the 400,000 figure might be reached by 2005, according to Wildlife Division projections. (At a 10 percent kill rate, Wildlife Division projections showed a climb from the 30-year low population of approximately 234,000 in 1993 to 400,000 in 1998.)

Ducks, on the other hand, are in the midst of a population boom built upon very good nesting conditions in the upper Midwest and the prairie regions of Canada, according to a joint U.S.-Canada aerial survey of 1.3 million square miles.

As a result of abundant winter and spring precipitation, according to the USFWS, duck breeding populations were 32.5 million, up 24 percent from last year, and the fall flight forecast was for 71 million.

The lowest fall flight forecast recorded was 55 million in 1985.

Counts for seven of nine principal species were up over last year, with four species (gadwall, green-winged teal, blue-winged teal and shovelers) above long-term averages, and mallards, wigeon, redheads and canvasbacks just about at long-terms averages.

The fall flight of mallards, the most numerous ducks in North America, was projected to be 12 million, 39 percent higher than last year.

The resurgence of ducks is reflected in the length of the duck-hunting season in Maryland, which this year numbers 40 days with a three-duck limit.

But USFWS biologists point out that there are no guarantees that the duck population will continue its resurgence. And should the potholes and ponds at the breeding grounds dry up next spring and summer, we can again expect a shorter hunting season in the fall.

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