Md., Del. join to control geese numbers

On The Outdoors

October 11, 1998|By Peter Baker | Peter Baker,SUN STAFF

Greater snow geese present a burgeoning problem, one the Department of Natural Resources wants to get under control before the population of snows potentially doubles in the next decade.

Greater snows have been increasing in the Atlantic Flyway since the mid-1960s. More than 600,000 greater snows now winter in Maryland and Delaware, according to DNR, damaging or destroying habitat critical to the survival of other species -- and perhaps ultimately themselves.

Snow geese feed by eating the root stalks of plants such as saltmarsh cordgrass, destroying the entire plant and eventually eliminating the marsh.

In an effort to control the population of snows, Maryland and Delaware have agreed to allow hunters from each state to cross state lines and hunt greater snow geese without buying a non-resident hunting license. A Maryland license will be good in Delaware, and a Delaware license will be good in Maryland.

"Snow goose numbers on the Delmarva peninsula have increased dramatically and are now causing serious damage to coastal salt marshes and agricultural crops," said DNR Secretary John R. Griffin. "This license reciprocity for snow goose hunters between our two states is one of several steps being taken to increase the harvest on this population.

"Our goal is to stabilize their numbers at a level that is compatible with available habitats, and we are asking waterfowl hunters to help us with this problem."

Annual photographic surveys of snows as they stage on the St. Lawrence River in spring show that they have increased from about 50,000 in the mid-1960s to more than 695,000 this year. Waterfowl managers predict the spring population of greater snows, if unchecked, will reach 1 million by 2002 and 2 million by 2010.

"Waterfowl managers believe that the population of greater snows should be stabilized at a level that can be sustained, for the long term, on existing habitats," said Mike Slattery, director of DNR's Wildlife and Heritage Division. "To accomplish this objective, the growth rate of the population needs to be stalled, stabilizing the population at 1 million birds in the Atlantic Flyway. This means harvesting twice as many snow geese as we do now."

Doubling hunters' take of snow geese, from 12 percent of the fall population to 24 percent, would cancel out the average increase of goslings each year, wildlife managers believe.

The bag limit in Maryland has been raised to 15 per day, and the season splits are Oct. 17-Nov. 27 and Dec. 8-Feb. 27. Delaware's dates are Oct. 19-Nov. 12, Nov. 23-Jan. 16 and Feb. 10-March 6.

The greater snows have left their mark in damaged salt marshes from New Jersey to Virginia. In Maryland, some of the most severe damage has been done in the upper Chincoteague Bay && area, including Newport Creek and Big Bay Point and Robbins Tump islands.

According to DNR, "The grubbing action of several thousand snow geese has reduced the marsh level of these wetlands so severely that they may soon become submerged wetlands."

Not only do snows damage habitat critical to terns, egrets, black ducks and Atlantic brant during their winters on Delmarva, but in late spring and summer their numbers damage their nesting grounds.

After staging on the St. Lawrence River, greater snows move into the coastal Canadian Arctic to nest. State and federal waterfowl managers said there is evidence that the snows are overgrazing the tundra habitat, although the damage is said to be reversible if the population expansion is stalled.

While the problems posed in the Atlantic Flyway by the greater snows are thought to be controllable, the mid-continent population of lesser snow geese may provide a glimpse of an unchecked future.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service described an "ecological crisis" on the Arctic nesting grounds of the lesser snows.

VTC "Snow geese are literally devouring the nesting areas in Canada that they share with many other species of wildlife," said Paul Schmidt, chief of USFWS Migratory Bird Management Office. "What once were thriving tundra ecosystems with diverse plant and animal life are fast becoming denuded wastelands."

Lesser snows, like greater snows, feed by grubbing or pulling and devouring the roots of plants. According to the USFWS, when the mid-continent population of lesser snows stood at about 900,000 birds in the 1960s, the ecosystem could withstand the grubbing and replenish itself in the short Arctic growing season.

But in the last 30 years the numbers of lesser snows have increased 5 to 7 percent per year, according to USFWS. Where the cord grasses and sedges preferred by geese once flourished, "in many places the earth of the nesting grounds is now cracked, bare and dotted with sterile, salt-encrusted craters."

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