Geese return message of hope

On The Outdoors

March 05, 1998|By Peter Baker | Peter Baker,SUN STAFF

For several years, the sounds of migrating geese have been mostly missing from the early mornings in late winter along my small portion of the Western Shore. Over a period of several days last week, however, there was a clamor shortly after dawn as successive flights of Canada geese began their journeys north.

As groups of a dozen or two rose through the altitudes, calling among themselves and fitting into the slipstreams built by the familiar v formation of their flights, the pieces of their sometimes puzzling life cycle again began to fit together.

Late each winter, the birds leave their wintering grounds in Maryland and other states in the Atlantic Flyway and move north into Canada to breed and raise their young through the summer. In the fall, with the year's surviving young joining the flight, the birds return south to winter where there is feed and open water.

On the breeding grounds, the nesters are subject to egg gathering by local populations, predation by foxes and other mammals and the vagaries of weather.

On the wintering grounds, efficient sport hunting further pressured the geese until the breeding population bottomed out at 29,000 pairs and hunting was suspended through the flyway in 1995.

In the mid-1980s, wildlife managers estimated some 900,000 Canada geese traveled the flyway and the Atlantic population was considered the largest in North America.

By 1995, the Atlantic population had declined to 650,000, and Maryland's mid-winter count had fallen to 259,200. The primary reasons given by waterfowl managers were overhunting and poor reproduction caused by decreasing numbers of breeders and several successive years of extensive ice cover well into June.

In mid-February, the results of the state's mid-winter waterfowl survey showed a 26 percent increase in the number of migrant Canada geese wintering in Maryland, up to 275,100 from 217,700 last year. Important wintering areas on the Eastern Shore, it was noted, showed increases up to 35 percent.

But while those numbers are encouraging, they are not the benchmark for management of migratory Canada geese in Maryland or throughout the Atlantic Flyway, which runs from Northern Quebec to North Carolina.

Larry Hindman, Waterfowl Project manager for the Department of Natural Resources and chairman of the Atlantic Flyway Council's Canada Goose Committee, said there has been "a shift in management focus from the wintering grounds to the breeding grounds."

Under the flyway council's 1996 action plan for the Atlantic population, the goal of waterfowl managers is "to achieve and/or maintain a breeding population of 150,000 pairs in the Ungava region, 15,000 pairs in the Atlantic Region and 25,000 pairs in the boreal forest region of Quebec."

Within the framework of the plan, there are provisions for a return to sport hunting at a limited level once the number of breeding pairs in the Ungava Bay area reaches 60,000 or greater. The annual breeding grounds survey showed 63,000 pairs there last year.

But, as Hindman said in February, it is doubtful that waterfowlers will be allowed to hunt this fall, even in an extremely limited season.

While there are positive signs of recovery, Hindman said the flyway council still is testing population models that will help determine what the levels of "safe harvest will be."

"We want to be sure the population will continue to increase toward that 150,000 pairs level," Hindman said.

This will be the third successive spring that the birds return to Labrador, Quebec's boreal forest and Ungava Bay after wintering unpressured by hunters throughout the flyway and, without younger birds being taken from the population by hunters, the number of breeding pairs at Ungava has more than doubled since 1995, increasing from 29,000 to 63,000.

Once the Atlantic population has rebuilt itself, Maryland can expect again to hold the majority of the migratory Canada geese in the flyway. The migrants, after all, know no better and return to the same places, spring and fall.

We, on the other hand, should know better than to repeat our mistakes.

Pub Date: 3/05/98

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