A remarkable recovery, management of atlantic population Canada geese.

By Larry Hindman
Canada geese in a field They arrived overnight. Aided by the first breath of Arctic air, migrating Atlantic Population (AP) Canada geese arrived Friday, September 14, on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Fueled by energy supplied by gooseberries and other tundra grasses and sedges, AP geese made another rapid, nearly direct flight of more than 2,000 miles from the vast Arctic tundra breeding area, the Ungava Peninsula in northern Quebec - a fall journey made for hundreds of thousands years by their ancestors.

The sight of these magnificent birds cruising the cool Indian summer air currents was a welcome sight as the flocks searched for a picked cornfield to refuel. This year, however, the arrival of geese from Quebec signals a new era - the return of goose hunting on the Eastern Shore.

To field

Goose hunting or "gunning" is a fall activity steeped in tradition. Hunts become great days in the field; goose hunts with friends, remarkable retrieves by "duck dogs," followed by a post-hunt drink and steamed oysters. Post hunt gatherings are always punctuated by tales that allow one to relive the moments of the hunt: The "toll" of geese that fell into the decoy spread with but a couple of "clucks" on the flute call; the shots that were missed and great shots that were made. That is what goose hunting on the shore is about - there's no experience like it in the world.

The 2001 goose season will be a modest season by past standards, 30 days long with a one-bird daily bag limit. Many waterfowlers will recall the days when the season stretched for almost three months and it was easy to bag three birds. Those that have experienced the greatest Canada goose hunting in the world may now scoff at getting up early, setting out the decoys just to bag a single goose.

Yet others have yet to experience the hunt. The goose season has been closed in Maryland since 1995, six long years. This fall, however, the sky will be filled again with unbelievable numbers of geese. The fall flight of AP geese will rival those in the mid 1970s, when the flocks seemed to be never ending.

Their arrival also signifies a change in goose management and a departure from how Canada geese were monitored in the past.

The last of how it was?

Looking back to the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, Canada geese in the Atlantic flyway management was based on surveys done when geese were on their wintering grounds. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), along with other flyway states, monitored goose population status with fall and winter surveys, and banded geese after the hunting season.

As the population grew to unprecedented levels in the mid-1970s, hunting regulations were liberalized. As many as 1 million Canada geese wintered in Maryland. Harvests were huge, routinely exceeding 200,000 birds annually, fueling a growing commercial goose hunting industry. The picture was rosy a multitude of geese and hunters, supporting a healthy local economy. The golden years of goose hunting continued, as long as the annual harvest of geese was replaced each spring with a new crop of goslings.

However, in the mid-1980s, something went wrong. Although DNR waterfowl managers had a "gut feeling" that the Maryland goose population seemed to be dwindling, a decline was not discernable from examining existing population data.

Nevertheless, in 1986, DNR raised the issue of goose conservation with the public. Following several public forums to garner the perspectives of hunters, outfitters and others interested in the future of goose hunting, the hunting season was reduced from 90 to 70 days. The public believed there was too much hunting pressure on the population -- many blamed commercial goose hunting operations.

Immediately thereafter, while winter goose counts in Maryland began to decline, they did not fall elsewhere in the flyway. In fact, overall Canada goose numbers were increasing in Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey.

In Maryland, hunters thought excessive hunting pressure caused geese to "shortstop" in states north of Maryland. However, a flyway-wide neckband project conducted in the mid 1980s showed that more than 90 percent of geese marked in Maryland returned to the state the following winter if they were still alive. These results dispelled the "short stopping" theory. Rather, the study concluded the goose survival rates here had declined to unhealthy levels caused by overharvest, (too many geese going into frost-free freezers). Other data indirectly pointed to a decline in gosling production.

The big bite

In response, Maryland took a decisive and unprecedented step to reducing the harvest rate on AP geese in 1988. DNR took the "big bite," a term used by waterfowl managers that means taking a drastic measure to reduce harvest.

In seasons past, most geese were taken by hunters during the first two weeks of the season when geese are most vulnerable. DNR reduced the daily bag limit from three geese to one for the first two weeks of the season, followed by a two-goose bag limit for the rest of the shortened season.

To say this move was controversial is an understatement. Opposition to the change in hunting regulations was widespread, coming from state legislators, business owners and goose hunting outfitting services alike. Despite the threat of lawsuits, personal attacks directed at DNR biologists, and futile attempts to discredit scientific data, the agency stood tall and failed to bend to political pressure.

Although the hunting regulation changes were successful in reducing the goose harvest by half and improving survival, the benefit of the changes were not fully realized. Poor gosling production continued, eliminating any chance for the goose population to rebuild its numbers. Meanwhile, states to the north were reluctant to take substantial regulatory steps to reduce goose harvest, for they did not observe a decline in wintering goose numbers. The decline of migrant geese in these states was masked by substantial increases in resident, nonmigratory Canada geese.

It wasn't until 1993, when the flyway states initiated an annual survey of breeding AP geese in northern Quebec that the true picture of AP goose status became clear. From 1993 to 1995 the estimated number of breeding pairs of AP Canada geese declined from about 91,000 to 29,000. This precipitous decline caused the Atlantic Flyway Council to recommend closure of the goose hunting season in 1995. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concurred.

Taking action

Larry Hindman measures goose eggs in Quebec. Following the season closure, the Council adopted an Action Plan to guide the recovery of AP geese. The plan included a new population-monitoring program that focused on tracking geese from a breeding ground perspective. This initiative was necessary to provide a reliable annual assessment of AP goose population status, avoiding the confounding problem caused by resident geese that mixed with migrants on the wintering areas.

Wintering-ground aerial population surveys and banding became obsolete. Data gathering shifted to northern Quebec. The spring breeding pair survey was continued and an intensive nesting study was initiated to identify the factors influencing gosling production. Banding of AP geese was implemented to provide a reliable measure of harvest rate. Satellite radio telemetry was used to unravel the puzzles about migration timing and breeding ground and wintering area affiliation.

The price tag was high and working in the Arctic was logistically difficult. However, the commitment was made by state and federal wildlife agencies, and supported by hunters through their license fees and excise taxes on hunting equipment.

In 1997, following several years of poor gosling production, Mother Nature lent a helping hand. With a gradual increase in breeding geese due to the hunting season closure, AP geese experienced a good nesting season. Other good production years followed in 1998 and in 1999. In a short time, the spring breeding pair estimates increased -- from 46,000 in 1996 to 77,000 in 1999.

That year, states in the flyway were offered a limited hunting season on AP geese, targeting a 5 percent harvest rate. Maryland and Delaware declined a 6-day hunting season, hunters opting to wait until a more reasonable harvest could be taken. In 2000, despite another increase in breeding pairs, both states again turned down a limited season based upon a poor nesting season.

A new day

This year, however, dawned brighter, as the spring breeding population included new breeding pairs from the large 1997 and 1998 nesting seasons.

Spring in the Arctic was early. When the nesting study field crew arrived in Povungnituk, Quebec, in mid-May the tundra was free of snow and ice. Goose pairs were everywhere!

The mid-June aerial survey revealed that the number of breeding pairs had jumped incredibly from 93,000 in 2000 to 146,000 in 2001. Geese also experienced favorable nesting conditions throughout the spring. Nesting success was high, with 85 percent of all nests producing goslings. Further, broods of goslings survived well. Thus, a large fall flight of AP geese is expected about one million birds containing some 250,000 young.

This November, the hunting of migrant geese will resume in Maryland. The season will mark the rekindling of a time-honored tradition and a new era of goose population management. Goose management will be driven by state-of-the-art scientific data -- data no longer confounded by resident, nonmigratory geese. As the AP continues to grow, more liberal hunting opportunities can be expected in the future. Hunting seasons and bag limits will be guided by this improved scientific monitoring, and a DNR resolve that Maryland may again lay claim to the title, Goose Capital of the world.

Larry Hindman is DNR's Waterfowl Project Manager.

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