Goose hunting once was an economic barrage during late autumn and early winter in many Eastern Shore counties, a long shooting season that drew hunters from around the globe to a small world of snug field pits and blinds, keen-eyed retrievers and guides calling Canada geese before the guns.
Hotels and motels filled with hunters, restaurants drew large crowds, gun shops and picking houses were busy. Landowners leased prime tracts of farmland for goose hunting at prime prices, which were quickly paid by outfitters who were confident they would be booked solid through a 90-day season.
Easton was known to some as the Canada goose capital of the world, and goose hunting, in its heyday, was estimated as being a $40 million annual industry by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
But for the better part of a decade, the Atlantic Flyway population of migratory Canada geese has been beset by poor reproduction and high kill rates, and according to state and federal authorities may be on the verge of collapse.
As the number of birds has decreased, seasons and bag limits have been reduced under state and federal guidelines. This year, however, there is the possibility of as few as 10 hunting days in tidewater areas of Maryland, Delaware and Virginia, and as few as 30 days elsewhere in the flyway.
"[The season] could go as low as 10, 15, 20 days in the Chesapeake region," said Jerry Serie, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service representative on the Atlantic Flyway Council, "and to as few as 30 to 40 days elsewhere, where in the past they have had 70-day seasons."
Ray Marshall, a long-time outfitter on the Eastern Shore, said a 10- or 20-day season at one bird per day would be "a killing blow" to his business as well as other guides and outfitters.
"First off, nobody wants to travel here to shoot one bird," Marshall said. "Second, nobody is going to spend the money to lease properties, set up blinds, repair boats and so on. For that kind of season, you'd never get your money out of it.
"It would be murder, 10, 15, 20 days."
Earlier this year, the annual survey of the breeding grounds in northern Quebec, the primary nesting area for Atlantic Flyway birds, produced an estimate of only 29,000 breeding pairs, a drop of 27 percent from last year. This year's count is more than 75 percent below the figure for 1988, when the decline of the flyway population was first detected.
"We have serious concerns about this sharp downward trend in breeding populations," said USFWS director Mollie Beattie. "We
have had poor reproduction since the mid-1980s, including the worst year on record in 1992."
Serie said the breeding collapse in 1992 is especially significant this year because it takes three years for geese to become sexually mature.
"So when you look at the 1992 year class, those birds would just be entering the breeding population now -- and production was bust in 1992," said Serie, who works with representatives from state fish and game departments from the Carolinas to Maine.
"Last year we had 40,000 [breeding] pairs; you harvest some of that and the number goes down from there. Normally, you would like an infusion of young birds each year, but we have not seen a good age class of 3-year-olds enter the population and bolster it."
The 29,000 pairs counted this spring is down from 40,000 in 1994 and 90,000 in 1993. In 1988, 118,000 breeding pairs were counted in the same area.
Serie said that the goose population has decreased so far that a moratorium on hunting is a "distinct possibility."
"I think it would be quite a price for hunters to pay, but moratoriums work for rockfish and they work for geese," Serie said. "I am not sure we are at that point, although a moratorium would help to expedite the recovery."
William F. Harvey, acting Waterfowl Program Leader for Maryland's Department of Natural Resources, said that Maryland's season probably will allow only one bird per day throughout. Last year, Maryland had a 35-day season split into one- and two-bird limits.
Outside the Chesapeake Region, the flyway states had 70-day seasons split into sessions with one-, two- and three-bird limits.
Harvey said, however, that a moratorium through the flyway seems unlikely.
"They [USFWS] seem leery of a moratorium," Harvey said. "I don't think they want to close the season. I'm guessing that they think that if they close it, they might not get it back open."
Marshall said if the season is limited to 20 or fewer days, then "they might as well put a moratorium on it."
The first steps in determining how much hunting will be allowed where will begin this week when the Atlantic Flyway Council holds its annual discussions on season parameters. Once the flyway council makes its recommendations, the USFWS will form a framework of regulations for the entire flyway, and the states then will select seasons within those limits.
Public hearings on proposed federal frameworks are scheduled early next month in Washington, and Maryland will follow those hearings with meetings for waterfowl hunters in this state.
For the past three years, Harvey has flown the breeding pairs survey on the Ungava Peninsula in northern Quebec. This year, he said, the breeding pairs were so few that "you didn't even have to use a scientific method [to calculate the decrease], you could just see it when you flew over the breeding grounds."
Serie and Harvey agree that biologists and hunters have been misled by recent population counts in the flyway because the number of non-migratory birds has increased and mixed with the migrants in midwinter, masking the decline in migratory birds.
In 1988, the flyway population was estimated at 737,900. This past winter, the count was 552,700. Maryland's average midwinter count from 1978 to 1986 was 317,800. This year's estimate was 259,200.
Harvey said that 10 years ago the population of resident Canada geese was small in comparison to the number of migratory birds. But a spring survey of nonmigratory birds estimates there are now more than 500,000 in the flyway.
"It makes sense to me that if the resident population is really that big, then the migrant population just has to be pretty small," Harvey said. "Certainly the breeding pairs survey [in Canada] shows that."
Migratory Canada geese breed in Quebec during the summer months and winter in areas of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and the Carolinas. Resident birds do not migrate.
Harvey said Maryland holds about 40 percent of the midwinter survey population in the flyway and "at least 50 percent of the migrant population."
Because Maryland -- along with Delaware and a small portion of Virginia -- holds the greatest portion of the migratory population, Serie said, seasons and bag limits are likely to be more restrictive here.
"If you are going to reduce the impact [of hunting], you have to be most careful where you have the most birds hold for the longest portion of the season," Serie said, "especially in an area like the Eastern Shore, where there are guides and outfitters who can be pretty effective at continually harvesting large numbers of birds."
In states north of the Chesapeake region, Serie said, hunting seasons are set up to allow most of the migrant Canada geese to pass through before they are heavily hunted.
But in Maryland, the problems are somewhat different because the geese "have a strong fidelity to breeding sites and wintering grounds, and if you shoot them out, they are gone," Serie said.
More than 25 years ago, North Carolina was a prime hunting area for Canada geese in the Atlantic Flyway, but in the years since, the state has had only a minimal number of migratory birds. The population had been shot out.
"If North Carolina is an example, if you are in the southern part of the [migratory] range and shoot them out, the chances are that the birds might never come back," said Harvey. "Now Maryland is pretty much the southern part of the range."
Maryland's Canada Goose Management Plan targets a migratory population of 400,000.
In the early 1980s, the states in the Mississippi Valley Flyway were faced with similar problems, migratory populations were dropping off, hunters were killing too many mature birds and there were successive years of poor conditions on the breeding grounds along the western shore of Hudson Bay.
The USFWS severely slashed seasons and bag limits and eventually relaxed regulations only after a quota system was established to control hunting kills in different parts of the flyway.
"Midwinter counts [in the Mississippi Valley Flyway] are now over a million, and they were down at one point below 250,000," Harvey said. "They went back up over a period of 10 years or so. That's what gives you some hope that the geese can come back here, too."