Federal officials yesterday said they will ease restrictions on hunting the migratory Canada goose population - a potential big boost to the Eastern Shore's fall economy.
The decision comes a decade after the imposition of a complete ban on hunting migratory Canada geese, in a bid to save the dwindling population. The ban was lifted in 2001, but with hunters limited to one bird a day.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials yesterday confirmed that the Atlantic Flyway goose population, which breeds in northern Canada and spends winters here, has rebounded to levels not seen since 1988. A survey of the breeding grounds in May counted 175,000 pairs of migratory Canada geese.
"It's a truly remarkable recovery," said Paul Schmidt, assistant director for migratory birds.
The relaxed restrictions mean hunters can shoot two birds a day during the latter half of Maryland's 45-day split season. . Since the lifting of the moratorium in 2001, a one-bird-a-day restriction was imposed on both portions.
"It's fantastic news," said Capt. Bud Harrison, who helps run his family's Tilghman Island charter boat and resort business. "It will be a great boon to the sportsmen, but also to the outfitters and others in the tourism industry."
With more than 1 million birds, the Atlantic Flyway was once considered the largest of North America's four migrating Canada goose populations. More than half of the birds spent winter months on the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.
At the height of its popularity, goose hunting was a $40 million industry, putting money in the pockets of Eastern Shore guides, motels and restaurants during the off-tourist season.
But by the mid-1980s, the population began to drop, alarming biologists. By 1995, the number of migrating birds declined by more than 300,000. Nesting pairs dropped from 118,000 in 1988 to 29,000 in 1995.
Faced with a crisis, federal wildlife managers imposed a hunting moratorium. It was up to Larry Hindman of the state Department of Natural Resources to break the news. In the summer of 1995, Maryland state troopers put a bulletproof vest on him before he told hunters about the decision to ban goose hunting to save the dwindling population.
Hindman will meet with hunters this month to tell them about the coming two-bird limit.
"I remember those days," he said yesterday about the ban. "People were pretty unhappy, but it was the right thing to do."
State troopers kept an eye on his house and intercepted threats. The soft-spoken graduate of Eastern Kentucky University began working with counterparts in 16 states, Quebec and the Inuits in northern Quebec to devise a monitoring program for the nesting areas.
Hindman and John Dunn of the Pennsylvania Game Commission were chairmen of the group charged with restoring the population.
"We needed money to properly monitor the population, to band birds and fly aerial surveys. We didn't have any surveys, so we didn't have any way of telling what was going on," Dunn said.
The lack of information further fueled the anger of Eastern Shore residents suspicious of government intervention.
"Pennsylvania doesn't have the commercial ties that Maryland has," Dunn said. "When you tell people you're going to take away their livelihood, people get a little hot. Larry took the brunt of it. But I think we were right and I think [the ban] proved itself."
Maryland invested about $100,000 a year in the survey work and Hindman, 55, did ground surveys on the Ungava Peninsula in northern Quebec.
"He takes off to the peninsula and hikes around and gathers eggs and monitors nests and does what 18-year-old college interns do," said Paul Peditto, director of DNR's Wildlife and Heritage Service. "But his results are sterling. He's ageless."
The ban, coupled with mild winters and increased hunting of the resident goose population, helped the migratory birds make a comeback.
The six-year moratorium was lifted in 2001, but with the one-bird-a-day restriction, business on the Eastern Shore was slow.
"Last year, we did get some business out of it, but it was mostly our fishing customers and locals," Harrison said. "A lot of people from Ohio, Georgia and the Carolinas said that just being able to shoot one goose didn't make it worth their while. But we can actually market this and give them goose hunting tied in with sea duck hunting."
If adopted by the state, the goose season will run Nov. 18 to 26 with a daily bag limit of one bird, then break two weeks for deer hunting. The season resumes with a one-bird limit on Dec. 18 and increases to a two-bird bag limit from Jan. 7 to 29.
The proposal will be discussed at a hearing at 7 p.m. Aug. 17 at Chesapeake College at Wye Mills.
"It takes somebody with a real dedication and passion for natural resources and science to shut a season down," said Peditto of Hindman. "It's rare that the people who make the tough decisions are around to see the fruits of their labors."