EASTON - The bird that was once King of the Eastern Shore has returned to its exalted perch.
Early tomorrow morning, hundreds of hunters will camp out on the edges of marshes, fields and ponds, poised with shotguns to resume a tradition that helps define life on the Eastern Shore: goose hunting.
That's a marked change from the situation less than a decade ago, when state and federal officials were so alarmed by the dwindling migratory Canada goose population that they banned all hunting of the geese. These days, hunters see so many birds that they're itching for the right to shoot more than one per day.
"This shows the success you can have if everyone works together - the hunters, the scientists, the states and federal government, the farmers, the landowners," says Bob Beyer, associate director of the wildlife and heritage service at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
By all accounts, the stunning rebound is a prime example of improved science and aggressive conservation. Scientists liken the effort to a moratorium that restored the rockfish population in the Chesapeake Bay and to the restoration of Maryland's deer population after overhunting in the 1930s and 1940s.
"We took a bird that was facing very serious decline and brought it back to where its population can safely be hunted. There aren't too many examples of where that has happened," Beyer said.
Here in the town that celebrates the migratory Canada goose like no other place in the United States, the return to hunting is still being celebrated three years after the ban was lifted.
Shop owners and residents of Easton say this weekend marks a confluence of events: the 33rd annual Waterfowl Festival and the opening of goose season. It is the first time in almost a decade that the dates have matched up.
"This represents the perfect weekend, something we haven't had in such a long time," says Larry Albright, owner of a downtown gun shop that's a popular place for goose hunters to gather and swap stories. "People will be able to go out in the morning, hunt and then come into Easton and enjoy the festival. It means so much for this community."
Getting to this weekend wasn't easy. It took a lengthy moratorium on goose hunting and more than a little anguish for the outdoor guides, hotels and restaurants who had come to rely on the waterfowl for winter income.
"There were some hard decisions, but I think everyone agrees it worked out pretty well," said Jerry Serie, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's representative to the Atlantic Flyway Council. "From everyone's standpoint, I think we were able to do the right things, and then we were fortunate enough to have a little help from Mother Nature."
For generations, the Delmarva Peninsula - and particularly Maryland's Eastern Shore - has been the hunting capital for migratory Canada geese.
The geese breed and nest each summer on the Ungava Peninsula in northern Quebec, then fly south for the winter to the marshes and ponds of Maryland and other mid-Atlantic region states.
In the early 1900s, goose hunting attracted presidents, politicians and business tycoons to the Shore's many shooting clubs.
But in the 1990s, scientists noticed a disturbing trend in their annual surveys of breeding pairs. The numbers were quickly dwindling. From 118,000 pairs counted in 1988, the population had dropped to 29,300 pairs in 1995.
That's when the state and federal governments agreed to ban hunting of the birds until the population had bounced back in numbers adequate to perpetuate itself.
"When they banned the hunting, I just stopped getting my hunting license," recalls Jim Kohlhaus. "Goose is my favorite thing to hunt, and once they stopped that, there didn't seem like any reason to get a license."
During the migratory Canada goose moratorium, hunting of residential Canada geese - birds that live in Maryland year-round and avoid the trip to Quebec for breeding - was permitted.
"You can't distinguish between a migratory bird and a residential bird, but when you're out hunting, you know there's a difference," Kohlhaus says.
The moratorium here coincided with mild weather in the nesting grounds of northern Canada, Serie says. "With these good weather in the Quebec area, there were good nesting conditions where they could have good protection of their young. It really gave that population a kick start."
To boost the migratory population, Maryland also pays farmers a small stipend to leave unharvested corn and wheat in their fields, dedicating about $140,000 from nonresident hunting license fees to 500 acres in Kent, Queen Anne's, Talbot and Dorchester counties last year. Those farms also provide a refuge from hunting, because no birds can be killed on the "baited" fields.
"It's certainly very helpful to the birds' health when they fly back," Beyer said. "It's very important because it's a long, hard flight back. They need a lot of fat reserves so that when they get to Canada, they have the strength to breed."