Pressure continues on Canadas


January 05, 1995|By PETER BAKER

The goose, responding to Jack Palmer's plaintive calls, broke away from a dozen and a half Canada geese flying through the early morning toward a sanctuary pond a cornfield north and came upwind across the sun behind the field pit.

Larry Hindman rose and fired.

"Nice shot," Palmer said. "Looking square into the sun and you still made a head shot. Good shooting. Clean kill."

Hindman smiled. Good shot or not, he and Donald Webster both knew that Palmer had worked hard to get the goose to leave its flock, warily circle the decoy spread and accept Palmer's invitation to come down to feed among the dozens of motionless, plywood silhouettes.

Palmer already had worked in birds for the other two hunters in the pit -- two shots out front and the last behind.

And among the three birds taken late last week, a major problem facing Maryland Canada goose hunters was displayed in miniature -- only one of three birds was a juvenile and the other two were females of breeding age.

The state's population of migratory Canada geese has been declining since the latter stages of the 1980s, and as the number of birds decline, fewer breeders are sent back to the nesting grounds in Quebec each spring.

Fewer breeders and poor weather conditions on the Ungava Peninsulahave kept the number of juvenile birds recruited to the population at low levels, which directs hunting pressure at mature birds, which accentuates the problem.

"Is it a double-edged sword? Yes, in a way," Hindman, head of the state's migratory game bird management program, said. "Whenever you have poor recruitment, hunting pressure on mature birds is going to increase."

Palmer and fellow guide David Hagan, both of whom work for Kennedyville outfitter Floyd Price, asked whether Maryland hunters were largely responsible for the decline.

"The problems facing these birds go beyond our hunters," said Hindman. "You have weather, which no one can control. You have subsistence hunting for eggs and birds by the Inuits and Cree up north. Then these birds are hunted all along the way south -- Quebec, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware.

"And once they get here, where the largest number of them winter, there are not that many places where they can hide. There are virtually no state lands that offer refuge on the upper Eastern Shore."

Instead the birds gather on sanctuary ponds such as the one Price maintains a short way from the pit blind off Shellcross Road in Kent County or along creeks and river coves until the ice or high winds force them off.

Webster has been working with limited funds to create havens for waterfowl through the Department of Natural Resources' Waterfowl Habitat Improvement Program (WHIP).

An avid hunter, as is Hindman, Webster said WHIP has been making progress in parts of the lower Eastern Shore, where a portion of the proceeds from the sale of non-resident hunting licenses has been used to pay some landowners to leave standing crops, plant appropriate crops and flood portions of fields.

"The program is doing what it can down there," Webster said, "but the annual budget is small [approximately $160,000], and because of that, expansion has been slow. After all, it is hard to sell a landowner on the idea of passing up profits from his harvest when it already is tough to make ends meet."

The upper Shore, Webster said, presents topographical problems as well.

"In Dorchester County, for example, you raise the water level by a foot and you can really cover some ground," Webster said. "And that pond, which might never be more than 10 inches deep, will produce tubers and plant seeds that waterfowl can thrive on.

"But on the upper Shore, the land is higher and better drained, and creating large areas of habitat is more difficult. I'm not saying it can't be done, but the scale [of individual areas] probably would be smaller."

As we sat in the field pit, a flock of snow geese rose in the west, stretching across several hundred yards of the horizon .

"There might be the best way to decrease the [hunting] pressure on the Canadas," said Palmer, a careful guide who would rather not call a shot than let a client cripple a bird on a poor one. "But you just never know where they are going to feed on any given day. And if you can't set up for them, how can you hunt?"

Hindman said that if the numbers of Canada geese stay low or decline further, it is possible that the more aggressive snow geese will begin to chase them off long-time wintering grounds.

Should that happen, Webster predicted, then snows might begin to roost regularly in the same locations, and outfitters and guides might be able to pattern them as they traditionally have patterned Canadas.

"But if there were enough refuge areas where the Canada geese could run and feed and hide," Hindman said, "we might never have to face that possibility.

"With the right commitment to habitat, I think the birds will recover on their own."

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