Limited hunting of Canada geese may be allowed Wildlife officials optimistic 3-year ban can be lifted in '99

November 03, 1998|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

With the Atlantic population of Canada geese rebounding from a decade-long decline, wildlife officials say they likely will allow limited shooting of the migratory birds next fall -- ending a moratorium that has crippled waterfowl hunting on Maryland's Eastern Shore for the past three years.

"We're all pretty optimistic that next year we'll be back to having a hunting season," said Jerry Serie, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Laurel.

The decision to resume hunting hinges on the geese producing a healthy crop of goslings next spring when they nest in northern Quebec, officials say. The Atlantic population migrates each fall from Canada to spend the winter in Maryland and other East Coast states from New York to North Carolina.

The federal government and Canada imposed an emergency hunting ban in 1995 after tracking a 75 percent drop since 1988 in the number of Atlantic geese nesting in Quebec each spring. The decline was blamed on low reproduction, probably because of poor conditions in the birds' breeding grounds, and on hunting pressures.

The moratorium was keenly felt on Maryland's Shore, where waterfowl hunting is an institution. Farmers who used to rent their fields to well-heeled parties of goose hunters, guides and sporting outlets have had to switch their businesses to other prey, such as ducks or deer, or do without the income.

"Everybody misses the glory days of Canada goose hunting," said Sean Mann of Towson, a veteran guide and champion goose caller. "I know many people are just waiting for it to come back."

In recent years, Maryland has allowed expanded hunting of so-called resident geese, a larger, non-migratory subspecies of Canada geese that has been multiplying, prompting complaints from some suburban dwellers about their waste and noisy, aggressive behavior.

Canada still allows subsistence hunting of the Atlantic geese by its Inuit and Cree native peoples. But since the coastal hunting moratorium, the number of geese breeding in Quebec rebounded from a low of 29,000 pairs in 1995 to 63,000 in spring 1997.

The number of migratory geese flying into Maryland likewise has recovered, from a low of 217,000 counted in January 1997 to 275,000 last winter, according to William Harvey, a game population specialist with the state Department of Natural Resources. Harvey surveys the geese each year here and in Quebec.

"We're going in the right direction," Harvey said. After a dismal breeding season in Canada in 1996, the Atlantic geese have had good nesting conditions the past two years, he said.

Wildlife officials have a long-term goal of restoring the breeding population to 150,000 pairs. They said they would only consider easing the hunting ban after the number rebounds to 60,000 and appears on the road to a sustained recovery.

While that threshold was reached in 1997, this year's aerial survey of the Ungava Peninsula in Quebec estimated only 42,000 pairs on nests. Wildlife officials discount the apparent decline this year, saying that the airplane spotters did not check until many birds had goslings.

"They're real secretive when they have newly hatched young," explained Serie, who represents the federal wildlife agency on the Atlantic Flyway Council.

Harvey, who attended a meeting last week reviewing the Atlantic goose status, said biologists are beginning to draw up a plan for resuming hunting, depending on what happens next spring.

"The conditions on the breeding grounds and the size of the breeding population will be more or less a trigger of whether we do it or not," he said. A poor nesting season would block renewed hunting for at least another year, he cautioned.

Once resumed, hunting is likely to be very limited at first, Serie said. In the Chesapeake region, where most of the Atlantic geese winter, hunters probably will have a very short season and be limited to only one bird a day.

"In this Chesapeake Bay region, where we have so many hunters, you can harvest a lot of birds in a very short time," Serie said.

Pub Date: 11/03/98

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