TUCKAHOE STATE PARK - Snow geese, once on the verge of extinction, have become such a nuisance that Maryland and Delaware have expanded their hunting seasons for the birds, established reciprocal hunting license agreements and increased bag limits.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is preparing an environmental impact statement for nontraditional methods of holding down the population of the beautiful white birds with black wing tips, including a spring hunting season, allowing hunters to use electronic calls and authorizing longer shooting hours.
Canadian authorities have established a spring season in an effort to minimize the damage to farm fields in Quebec and marshes along the St. Lawrence River, prominent staging areas for the geese on return trips to their Arctic breeding grounds.
To see a huge flock of the geese lift off from an Eastern Shore salt marsh, or home in on a grain field, is to enjoy "one of the most unique sites in nature," says Larry Hindman, a state wildlife specialist.
It is as if there were an eruption in the marsh. Hundreds of geese create a mosaic in black and white as they burst into the sky, the rush of air sounding like the roar from a far-off stadium. They swarm over the Queen Anne's County land in swirling patterns and squawking their loud song. Above the horizon, more geese come in waves.
It's "a sight to behold," Hindman says, but the geese are rapidly destroying the marshes that provide habitat and food for black ducks, terns and egrets and protect the adjacent land from erosion. They are tearing up fields of winter wheat and winter barley.
"People have lost property; farmers have lost crops," Hindman said. "So the goal is to get the geese under control."
The damage to Canadian farms reaches into the millions of dollars, says Raymond Sarrazin, chief of the Canadian Wildlife Service's Migratory Bird Division, in Quebec.
The expanded hunting seasons and increased bag limits are designed to reduce the number of birds in the flyway to about half a million, Hindman says.
Snow geese are smaller, with a more aerodynamic shape than their better-known cousins, Canada geese, and they come in two varieties.
Lesser snow geese breed on the southern and western shores of Hudson Bay and spend their winters in the Mississippi Valley as far south as Texas. Greater snow geese, which are generally larger, breed on Bylot Island, just below the Arctic Circle in Baffin Bay, and spend their winters in the salt marshes of Delaware and Chincoteague bays.
Lesser snow geese have turned parts of their breeding grounds into an arctic desert by uprooting the plants they feed on. Greater snow geese haven't done as much damage to their breeding grounds, and Canadian wildlife specialists hope to keep it that way.
"The concern is, we'd like to stop the population growth before they've done a number on the North," says Kathy Dickson, senior waterfowl biologist with the Canadian Wildlife Service.
The greater snow goose population had dropped to about 50,000 birds in the mid-1960s, in large part because they had "a very specific diet," Hindman says.
They once fed exclusively on cordgrass during the winter and berries during the summers.
But over the years, they expanded their winter diets to feed on corn and other grains and moved inland. Each spring they returned to the breeding grounds stronger and better able to reproduce.
By 1975, the population had recovered enough to allow a hunting season for the first time in 40 years, and last year it had mushroomed to 800,000 geese, despite the hunting pressure.
They're difficult to hunt, Hindman says, because they travel in huge flocks and aren't readily attracted to decoys. They also hopscotch from one field to another with no pattern.
"With Canada geese, you get to know they're going to feed on a certain field at a certain time," he says. "But with snow geese, there's no guarantee they're going to be where you think they're going to be."
Canada geese graze for food, clipping the tops from some plants, but snow geese rip plants out by the roots, destroying them.
"It's unbelievable," says William H. Purnell, who owns about 400 acres of marsh on Chincoteague Bay near the Virginia line.
"They've chewed up roughly 40 acres of marsh. Now it's blowing and the sea's busting all up on it. The marsh is going away slowly every time the tide gets on it."
Purnell, who has hunted on the marsh for 40 years, says he has used just about anything he could think of to slow the erosion - bales of hay and straw and even snow fences - but it "seems like an exercise in futility."
"You look at it and it makes you sick to your stomach to see what they've done," he says.