Hunters, officials don't see eye-to-eye


August 29, 1999|By Peter Baker | Peter Baker,SUN STAFF

To hunt or not to hunt?

When asked that question, the state's waterfowl managers and the Wildlife Advisory Commission couldn't agree with the public on an answer.

The state appears poised to approve a six-day season for migratory Canada geese next January, but 65 percent of the hunters, guides and landowners at a hearing last Monday were perplexed.

So, one might ask, what problems do hunters have with re-opening a season that for decades was an integral part of late autumn and early winter mornings on the Eastern Shore?

Here are the sticking points:

The timing of the season, Jan. 6-8 and Jan. 14-17, excluding Sundays.

The limited number of geese that could be harvested, 12,200.

A lottery drawing to determine who would receive permits and special tags and be allowed to hunt. Hunters would have to tag downed birds immediately and follow up within 24 hours by reporting the kill by telephone.

A six-day season with a limit of one bird per permit, while Virginia and states north of Delaware get bigger bag limits and longer seasons.

Hunting for migratory Canada geese has been closed through the Atlantic Flyway, from the Carolinas into Canada, since 1995 because breeding populations were at all-time lows.

Three years of sustained growth in breeding pairs and a substantial increase in the number of geese younger than breeding age have made it possible to open a tightly restricted season north of the Carolinas.

But, state and federal waterfowl mangers said, it will be several years before seasons and bag limits again approach 90 days and two birds daily.

"It really is a matter of whether we start slowly now or start slowly in the future," said Michael Slattery, director of DNR's Wildlife and Heritage Division. "We would like to reinstitute the cultural tradition of goose hunting and, as a department, reinforce the attitude that the hunting experience is less about how much is being killed and more about fellowship and the natural experience."

Timing the season

The timing of the season, said Robert A. Beyer, deputy director of DNR's Wildlife and Heritage Division, is set for maximum enforcement of hunting regulations and tight controls on the number of geese that are killed.

Maryland originally asked for a part of the season in November, he said, but the number of wildlife officers was inadequate.

"The only way we can be assured if we are at 12,000 birds or close to it is really by enforcement pressure," Beyer said, "and we have an agreement [with state and federal wildlife officers] to inundate the Shore in January."

Total harvest limits

Under federal guidelines, harvest limits for migratory Canada geese are 12,200 birds in Maryland and 35,000 throughout the Atlantic Flyway. The harvest is expected to be less than 5 percent of the fall flight, which migrates from northern Quebec and the Maritimes to winter largely on the Delmarva Peninsula.

As the number of migrants increases, harvest limits probably will expand. William F. Harvey, DNR waterfowl population specialist, said the future seems bright.

Since breeding pairs bottomed out at 29,000 in the spring of 1995, Harvey said, there has been "a slow, but steady increase in pairs" in primary nesting areas. This year a cooperative survey performed by waterfowl managers from the United States and Canada estimated 77,500 breeding pairs.

Surveys of nesting success and gosling production also have been "fair to good" for the past three years. "We expect that after three or four years, when goslings hatched in 1998 and 1999 begin to breed, to see a spike in the number of breeding pairs," Harvey said.

In the hallways at Easton High School and in discussion groups in the school cafeteria Monday night, many people said they have seen more geese wintering on Delmarva than in several years.

And, indeed, aerial surveys of midwinter populations on Delmarva were used to gauge the health of the Atlantic Flyway population -- until the numbers plummeted, seasons were restricted and then closed.

"As a primary measuring stick, we no longer use the midwinter survey," Harvey said. "We now are using the pairs system."

Waterfowl managers are not likely to expand the season until there are multiple year classes of breeders in the population.

The permit lottery

If the season is approved, Maryland will issue 12,200 permits and tags, although the distribution method remains uncertain.

Slattery expects permits will be issued through a lottery drawing, with each applicant having a random opportunity to receive one.

However, if fewer than 12,200 hunters apply for permits, it is possible some hunters could receive more than one.

"It should be one bird for everyone, rather than this lottery business," said Larry Allbright, president of the Maryland Sportsmen's Association. "The consensus I am getting is people are saying if you are going to try to shove this lottery down our throats, keep the season closed."

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