After four years of closure, the hunting season for Canada geese — perhaps the waterfowl most closely identified with the Chesapeake Bay — will open slightly this fall as the region’s migratory population continues to recover from historic lows.

An annual aerial survey of nesting grounds in northern Canada counted 77,000 breeding pairs in late spring, the highest number since 1993. The number of pairs has generally been growing since it bottomed out at 29,000 in 1995.

“We haven’t seen a big spike in the breeding population, but the population has definitely grown,” said Bill Harvey, Maryland Department of Natural Resources game program population specialist, who participates in the annual survey. “We’ve had three good years of production.”

The breeding ground survey is considered one of the best predictors of the future health of the population.

On a cautionary note, Harvey noted that the number of eggs per nest this spring, 3.9, declined slightly from recent years. That may be because the range of arctic foxes appears to be growing on the nesting grounds, he said.

Overall, biologists estimate that the total Canada goose population along the Atlantic Flyway has rebounded to around 600,000–700,000 birds. That’s still not up to levels of the 1980s, when more than 1 million geese populated the flyway, but it is more than double the 300,000 low the population hit in the early 1990s, prompting the first-ever closure of the hunting season.

The population plummet was caused by two factors. A series of late springs on the breeding grounds on the Ungava Peninsula, a vast expanse of land separating Hudson Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, hurt reproduction. With few goslings, hunting pressure was focused on breeding adults.

At the same time, the population of nonmigratory “resident” geese was mushrooming. That kept biologists from immediately recognizing the decline in migrating birds.

Nonmigratory birds now number about 1 million along the flyway, and have become nuisances in some parks, golf courses and subdivisions.

The Atlantic Flyway Council, consisting of representatives of Eastern states, Canadian provinces and federal officials from both countries, concluded that the migratory birds had rebounded enough to support a limited hunting season this year.

Harvey said the timing of this fall’s hunt in most states is actually geared to primarily take nonresident birds, but that some migratory geese would be probably be present. Closure of the hunting season had affected the ability to control resident birds.

Allowable harvests will be greatly reduced from historic levels. Maryland’s limit, if it has a hunt this year, will be no more than 12,000 birds. This is a huge drop from the more than 200,000 taken annually in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

But Harvey said the hunt will also help keep the migratory birds wary of people.

“The geese are really naive because they haven’t been hunted in several years,” he said. “It’s a safe season that will still allow the population to keep growing. It’s not going to threaten the breeding population, and hopefully it will help to educate the geese without taking much of a toll.”

The Eastern Shore of the Bay historically is the most important wintering grounds for Atlantic Flyway geese. Before the season was closed, Canada goose hunting was estimated to be worth $40 million to $50 million a year on the Eastern Shore.