Fewer geese and more bad decisions


When we wrote in late August of the political shootout over restoring Maryland's dwindling flocks of wild geese, it looked like the conservative game managers of the Department of Natural Resources would emerge from the fray minus a few feathers, yet flying strong.

But wait: Something stirs in a hunting blind artfully camouflaged to look like the governor's office.

A long, potent barrel -- a Speaker of the House Special -- trains on our DNR "conservation goose," just as it is about to cross the deadline for setting fall shooting limits.

BLAM! goes the speaker.

Here we go again, sighs the goose.

Crippled, but glad to be alive, DNR Secretary Torrey C. Brown puts his good wing forward, and is soon honking up the last-minute liberalizing of the hunting season as a balancing of "economic and recreational concerns."

"A good compromise" says that modest sharpshooter, House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., whose Eastern Shore district has built a multimillion-dollar economy around goose hunting.

As for the governor's office, by the next day there is scarcely a stray pine needle to indicate the ambush happened.

It was, to be honest, scarcely the environmental crime of the decade; nor will it make an endangered species of Maryland's wild geese, whose numbers, at a 30-year low, are still more than 200,000.

But the affair should still be galling to anyone concerned about protecting the natural resources of the Chesapeake Bay. The ambush shows that elected officials are willing to shoot down the best judgments of professional wildlife managers and play special-interest politics with what belongs to all of us.

Racapping briefly

To recap briefly the goose contretemps: DNR's wildlife division last spring proposed a drastically shortened hunting season. Years of substandard breeding conditions on the Hudson Bay summering grounds, and continued heavy shooting around the bay in the winter, had reduced populations nearly two-thirds, from a peak of 600,000.

DNR estimated that biting the bullet now could in a few years restore geese to about 400,000 -- a population that would satisfy hunters but not cause undue damage to farm crops.

Enter Mr. Mitchell, who prevailed on Gov. William Donald Schaefer to ask DNR officials to raise their limits. The governor did, and DNR did, going from 20 hunting days to 30, and up to this point it probably was a fair compromise. Preliminary surveys in Canada were indicating a superior breeding year. The 10-day increase, DNR figured, would push back full recovery of the geese by only a year.

But the compromise did not mollify the commercial goose guides in Talbot, Kent and Queen Anne's counties; or the farm owners there who lease hunting rights; or motels, restaurants and stores that profit from the influx of hunters.

Back came the governor. Mr. Mitchell needed more days -- and more geese, too. Paying customers would not come for DNR's proposed bag limit of one goose a day, hunting guides claimed. And so it was decided: a season of 35 days, with two geese a day for the last 15 days.

The bottom line

The bottom line is that the state may not reach its population goal for eight or nine years, unless summer reproduction increases dramatically.

You can argue, as Mr. Mitchell and his supporters do, that the goose harvest is purely a socioeconomic matter; and certainly it will not affect water quality, threaten extinction of the species or otherwise fundamentally harm the bay's environment.

But the decision begs another fundamental question: Whose geese these are. Since they migrate throughout the Chesapeake and into Delaware, they don't belong to any one state. Delaware already has passed strict goose limits based on assurances from Maryland's DNR that we would do the same.

Neither do the wild geese belong just to the hundred or so commercial guides, or to the three mid- and upper-Shore counties whose extensive cornfields make them the heart of shooting territory.

About two-thirds of the 27,000 goose hunters in Maryland do not go with commercial guides; and for every hunter, there are dozens of Marylanders and tourists who delight in watching large flights of geese. Many areas of the bay region will scarcely see any until populations become large enough that the birds spill over, in effect, from their Kent-Queen Anne's-Talbot heartland.

I find it ironic that other Eastern Shore legislators blindly followed Mr. Mitchell, thus shortchanging their own constituents. And how about the many hunters who turned out at five public hearings, including ones on the Eastern Shore, to support tough conservation measures, only to have their hash settled by a couple of high-level phone calls?

Hard economic impact

The public's interest in geese can be painted as trivial or elitist compared with the hard economic impact a shorter season would have on the estimated $70 million-a-year commercial hunting industry. But enterprises built upon natural resources -- particularly upon single species like the goose, whose cycles are as unpredictable as the Canadian summer -- can never be totally insulated against ups and downs.

Moreover, this is an industry whose fortunes for the past several years have been sustained at an artificially high level by overharvesting its lifeblood, the Canada goose. In the long run, a $20 million-a-year industry that cruises for decades might be better than a $70 million one that periodically crashes.

One of the main arguments heard against DNR's goose conservation is that the department overestimates the number killed in Maryland. Last year's official estimate was 67,000, but critics say the total is closer to half that. No one would argue that DNR's harvest numbers are perfect; but neither do the detractors have a solid basis for their numbers. Moreover, with most of its budget derived from hunting-related revenues, the Wildlife Administration would not strive to reduce hunting if it didn't think there was a real need.

And the the state's kill numbers omit the geese taken by hunters in Canada -- a toll that might run into the thousands.

Officials not happy

DNR officials are not happy over the way the goose season has been handled, but say it does not set a bad precedent for other natural resources issues. Secretary Brown, they say, would not go along, nor would the governor apply such pressure, if the stakes involved a species in critical condition, such as the oyster.

One hopes not, but such decision-making in the past did help decimate the oyster. (In recent years, disease has been a major factor, too.)

Any way you look at it, the tone set with this year's goose regulations is a poor one for managing resources for the common good. There is little the average citizen can do now but hope for more good breeding summers in Canada.

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