The first concrete sign that something was dramatically wrong with the Chesapeake Bay’s Canada goose population came 1,600 miles to the north.
There, in the spring of 1994, a pair of biologists knew something was amiss shortly after their small, twin-engine plane began flying straight lines — or “transects” — over the tundra of northern Quebec.
As they scanned the breeding grounds 100 feet below, it was clear to the biologists — one from Canada, and the other one from the United States — that far fewer geese were nesting than in 1993, the first year of the annual survey.
“After we had flown a few transects,” said Bill Harvey, acting waterfowl program leader for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, “it was obvious there had been a big change.”
Indeed, the final 1994 count was 40,000 breeding pairs of Canada geese — a huge drop from the 90,000 pairs counted the previous year. In 1988, the first time an aerial survey was conducted, 118,000 pairs were counted.
And this year, the news was the worst yet: Only 29,000 breeding pairs were on the Canadian tundra.
Officials blame this “precipitous decline” on a combination of bad weather that hampered reproduction on the northern breeding grounds and on overharvests in the wintering grounds, which range from southern Quebec to the Carolinas. The largest population of wintering birds is found on the Eastern Shore.
To stem the decline, members of the Atlantic Flyway Council — an organization that represents the eastern states, Canadian provinces and federal officials from both countries along the flyway — have agreed to close this fall’s hunting season for the first time in history. Biologists see the moratorium as the quickest, and surest, way to stem the decline.
“It’s like catching up with a snowball rolling downhill,” said Jerry Serie, Atlantic Flyway Representative for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “We knew we had to do something pretty restrictive.”
The situation is a dramatic turnaround from only 15 years ago when the population peaked at about 1 million geese. That followed a period when their main wintering ground moved from the Carolinas to the Bay region. On the Eastern Shore, the geese found an abundance of leftovers in corn and soybean fields to eat as well as a shortened flight to their breeding grounds — factors biologists say contributed to rapid population growth.
Managers responded by expanding the hunting season in the late 1970s. But in the mid-1980s, a series of harsh winters set in, taking an additional toll on the geese.
The severity of the Canadian winter is crucial to the birds. They reach their breeding grounds about mid-May. Within a few days, the females lay eggs which require 30 days of incubation. After they hatch, it takes another 75 days for the goslings to get big enough to fly. By that time, summer is gone and winter is ready to set in. There is little margin for error.
“In years when the spring melt is delayed, they basically hang around and wait for that melt to occur,” Harvey said. “As they wait, they are burning up the fat reserves they need for laying eggs. And if the wait is protracted long enough, some birds just don’t nest at all. Birds that do will lay smaller clutches.”
And, Harvey said, the longer the birds wait, the greater the chance that the goslings will not be able to migrate before winter returns.
Though the population has been hammered by a number of bad winters in the past decade, it took a number of years for managers to respond with hunting restrictions throughout the flyway. In 1992, they acted to cut harvests 60 percent. Serie said that managers felt that was “taking a pretty good cut” at the problem, but the decline continued.
Part of the problem, Harvey now believes, is that one of the key goose management assumptions was in error. Biologists have considered it important that a large number of geese survive until they are 3 years old — the age at which they begin to reproduce.
But, Harvey said, while geese begin to reproduce at 3, they are far more successful when they get to be 4, 5 and 6 years old. Instead of living to be old enough to reproduce once, they need to reproduce several times.
“With the low survival [rate] that we’ve had, there just are not that many birds living that long,” Harvey said. “If that’s the case, even when you get fairly good conditions, there’s just not that many birds that are going to produce goslings for you. It may explain, at least partly, why even in years when we’ve had fairly good weather conditions, we have not seen the production we expected.”
To many nonhunters, the picture may not appear all that bleak. Canada geese are all over, and in very large numbers. In fact, according to Serie, there are still about 1 million birds along the flyway — roughly the same as 1980.
But the geese many people see are something relatively new to the area: resident geese. And they, officials say, are creating management problems of their own. In addition, they are partly to blame for misjudgements that led to the current crisis for the migratory birds.
The resident birds are of a separate subspecies — or a combination of several subspecies — from the migrants native to the area. Most, it is thought, are Giant Canada geese from the upper Midwest that people brought to the region and propagated decades ago. Many were ultimately released.
Gradually, these birds have spread over the landscape. Many do not migrate at all, others migrate short distances. In addition to avoiding the stresses of long-distance migration, research indicates the resident birds begin reproducing when they are two — a year sooner than the migrants.
And although hunting for resident birds is still being allowed this year in a season that takes place prior to the return of migratory birds, many of the resident geese live on golf courses, parks or other protected areas where hunting is not allowed.
With all those advantages, their population has mushroomed in the past decade. “It’s kind of gone to such an extent that nobody wants them anymore and you can’t get rid of them,” Serie said. “They are a nuisance problem throughout most of the states that have them. They’re on golf courses and homes and things, and in many cases there’s a lot of complaints.”
Today, Serie said, the Atlantic Flyway population numbers about 1 million birds — the same as 15 years ago. But about three-quarters of them are residents. The migrants account for about 250,000 to 300,000 — a figure that includes both the breeding birds counted in the aerial survey and the non-breeders.
For years, managers used a midwinter count conducted throughout the flyway during the first week in January to determine the Canada goose population. But it is impossible to distinguish resident and migratory birds during the midwinter count.
As a result, the growing resident goose population masked the decline of the migratory birds. “It’s really only in the last 10 years, and especially the last five years, that our thinking is catching up with where the resident geese population is,” Harvey said. “They are increasing rapidly.”
To remedy that, managers increasingly looked to Ungava Peninsula, a huge mass of land about the size of Wyoming that divides the Hudson Bay in the west from the Ungava Bay and the Atlantic Ocean in the east. Research in the 1960s identified the area as the breeding ground for the Atlantic Flyway geese.
The area is hundreds of miles from the nearest road, creating logistical problems for aerial surveys: Even gasoline for the survey plane must be flown in. Also, the area is controlled by native Inuits who, at first, were reluctant to cooperate in part because of lingering distrust of the government.
“The geese are incredibly important to them,” Harvey said. “The winter up there is atrocious. And when the geese come back, it’s one of the hallmarks that the winter is breaking.”
The Cree Indians, a bit farther south, even have a name for it: Goose break. “The schools shut down, and all the families go out and hunt,” Harvey said. “And it’s a really important aspect of all those people’s lives."
The first aerial survey was conducted in 1988. In 1993, it became an annual monitoring event — and a pivotal tool in estimating the population. “The midwinter numbers have been telling us for several years that the population is going down, but the resident geese so complicated interpreting the numbers that it took the breeding ground information to give us real confidence in the other data,” Harvey said.
And with the breeding data showing three consecutive years of declines, managers in the past few months came to the conclusion the time had come to act.
Though the season is closed only for this year, officials say it is likely the closure will last at least three years — a period that gives those birds hatched this year a chance to grow old enough to breed at least once. The only harvests to be allowed is subsistence hunting by the natives in the breeding grounds.
But, managers note, such restrictions have helped elsewhere. When the Mississippi Valley population of Canada geese declined from 600,000 birds to 250,000 in the late 1970s and early 1980s, harvest restrictions allowed the population to rebuild to 1 million geese over an eight-year period from 1981-89.
“Sometimes you have to make some tough decisions for the benefit of the resources,” Serie said. “I think this is a realization that everyone’s faced.”