Canada geese numbers breed optimism


The hunting season for migratory Canada geese again will be closed in Maryland and the Atlantic Flyway this fall, but according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a reopening of the season is a possibility in 1999.

The season was closed by the USFWS and the state in 1995 to allow the breeding population to recover from over-hunting and several successive years of poor breeding conditions in northeastern Canada.

"I think we have done the right things, and the population is showing signs of recovery," said Jerry Serie, Atlantic Flyway representative for USFWS. "We're looking at it optimistically, which is with good conditions next spring we can look at a hunting season next fall."

According to a paper prepared by Serie and the Department of Natural Resources' Larry Hindman, chairman of the flyway Canada Goose Committee, winter counts of Canada geese approached 1 million in the mid-1980s and the number of nesting pairs was 118,000 in 1988.

However, between 1986 and 1995, the number of Canada geese wintering in the flyway fell from 900,000 to 650,000, and the breeding pairs fell from 118,000 in 1988 to 29,000 in 1995, the lowest number ever recorded.

After the moratorium was declared on hunting throughout the flyway, numbers of breeding or nesting pairs increased until 63,000 were counted in 1997. This past year, however, the count fell to 42,000.

But, said Serie, that is not necessarily bad news for the birds or the hunters.

The counts on the breeding grounds are made each June from slow-flying aircraft that travel specific transects while observers make the count.

This year, Serie said, the count was difficult because, with a warm spring and an early thaw, many of the geese already had broods.

"The birds started nesting earlier this year, and 21 percent were seen as broods," Serie said. "As such they present a visibility bias because they become cryptic, secretive, less likely to show up. There is little question we are not seeing all of them."

One trigger that will allow serious consideration by federal and state officials of reopening the hunting season is a level of at least 60,000 breeding pairs in the Ungava region of Quebec, the primary breeding grounds for the Atlantic population.

But there also must be evidence of sustained recovery over several years, including acceptable numbers of young of the year. Under the flyway action plan adopted in 1996, while resumption of hunting will "be considered" when the 60,000 level is reached, the short-term population goal in the Ungava region is 150,000 breeding pairs.

Migratory Canada geese do not reach sexual maturity until they are at least 3 years old, so as of this spring there was but one newly mature year class that had come and gone from the wintering grounds without being hunted -- and it was produced by the breeding pairs of 1995, the smallest breeding population on record.

"On top of that," Serie said, "poor production might be expected" from the new 3-year-olds because not all of them joined the breeding population.

But as each succeeding year class reaches maturity, numbers of pairs can be expected to increase steadily, and it may be that the 60,000 trigger is within reach.

The aerial surveys showed 46,000 pairs in 1996, 63,000 in 1997 and 42,000 this year, with excellent gosling production in 1997, and a good possibility of another bumper crop this year.

"We're all pretty optimistic with this year and last year," said Serie, citing the numbers of breeding pairs, favorable spring weather on the breeding grounds and gosling production. "If we can get through next spring with good conditions, I think we can begin to look at it."

Pub Date: 8/23/98

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