In a dramatic turnaround, an annual survey of migratory Canada geese indicates the number of breeding pairs has grown fivefold since it bottomed out in 1995, and forced an unprecedented closure of the hunting season.
Maryland Department of Natural Resources Secretary Chuck Fox called the recovery “a classic conservation success story” and announced that the state — home to the most important wintering ground for the birds — would resume its hunting season this fall.
Migratory Canada geese — which are different from the “resident” geese that have become pests in many areas — are the waterfowl most closely identified with the Chesapeake Bay. But they suffered a severe population decline in the late 1980s and early 1990s as the result of bad weather on their Canadian breeding grounds, and overhunting on their wintering grounds.
Hunting was closed throughout the Atlantic Flyway after a 1995 aerial breeding ground survey counted only 29,000 pairs of birds nesting on the Ungava Peninsula, which separates Hudson Bay from the Atlantic Ocean.
This year, biologists conducting the annual survey counted 147,000 nesting pairs, a 57 percent increase from the 93,000 pairs counted last year.
“We’re close to five times as many as we saw in 1995, said Bill Harvey, a DNR game program population specialist who participates in the annual survey and described this year’s count as “spectacular.”
The population had recovered enough last year for the Atlantic Flyway Council, a panel of state, federal and Canadian officials that manages migratory waterfowl populations, to allow a limited hunt. But Maryland, which was allotted a third of last year’s harvest, decided to keep the season closed to allow for further recovery.
“Our conservation stance has paid off, as we now see breeding population numbers at historic levels,” Fox said. “The time has come to resume the tradition of migratory Canada goose hunting in Maryland.”
Although hunting seasons are being resumed along the Atlantic Flyway, target harvest numbers will be very conservative to allow the overall population to continue to increase, Harvey said.
When the season was first closed, biologists thought they would like to see the breeding survey reach about 150,000 pairs before they considered the population to be “recovered.” But with that number within sight, biologists are contemplating whether the goal should be higher, Harvey said.
No one knows what the Canada goose population was in the late 1970s and early 1980s — when it is believed to have peaked —because at that time, no comprehensive surveys were made, Harvey said.
But biologists now believe “we’re still something below that,” he said. “If we did the same aerial survey that we do now then, there had to be at least a couple hundred thousand pairs.”
That mark could be reached soon, Harvey said. It takes at least three years for the geese to reach breeding age. With strong reproduction reported in 1999, 2000 and this year, lots of birds are “waiting in the wings” to fuel a further recovery of the population, he said.
“The number of pairs should continue to grow, at least for a while, because the goslings hatched in 1999 should start to nest next year, and the hunting seasons are still really conservative,” Harvey said. “So we look for the population to continue growing.”
Further, he said, monitoring tools such as the annual aerial survey and a large-scale effort that bands up to 7,000 geese a year will help biologists better track the population so they won’t be caught off guard if it suddenly begins to drop.
Without those surveys, biologists did not quickly notice a decline in the population of migrating geese in the late 1980s, which resulted from a series of harsh winters that reduced reproduction.
As a result, hunting pressure was not cut fast enough. The result was a lack of production on the breeding ground, and overhunting on wintering grounds.
The decline of the migrating population was masked by the rise in the number of nonmigratory “resident” Canada geese that took place at the same time. The resident birds — which have become problems at parks, golf courses and other areas — are thought to be a separate subspecies brought to the region and propagated decades ago.
Many were ultimately released and — without facing the hazards of migration — their population rapidly grew.
Today, the nonresident population, estimated to be more than a million along the Atlantic Flyway, outnumbers the migratory population.