As the hunting moratorium on migratory Canada geese enters its third season, biologists believe they are finally seeing a sign that the population may be on the rebound.
Aerial surveys of arctic breeding grounds this year found 63,200 pairs of nesting geese, a sharp increase from the 46,000 counted last year and more than twice the record low of 29,000 seen in 1995.
Unlike 1996, geese this year found ideal nesting conditions. Last year, the migrating birds found unusually icy conditions in their breeding grounds, and although more geese nested than in 1995, biologists said reproduction was low.
"We had more breeding pairs last year, but not necessarily more total geese," said Bill Harvey, Maryland Department of Natural Resources game program population specialist, who participates in the annual aerial survey. "But that should change this year with the good hatch."
Not only did more geese nest this year, they appeared to be far more productive. While the average nest last year had 3.5 eggs, biologists on the ground counted about 4.6 eggs per nest this year.
The stepped-up, on-site monitoring efforts were put in place after biologists were surprised a few years ago to learn the number of migrating Canada geese along the Atlantic Flyway had plummeted from more than 1 million in the 1980s to about 300,000.
That prompted the first-ever closure of the hunting season for migratory Canada geese in 1995, though seasons remain for birds that don't migrate. The moratorium has continued since, awaiting signs of sustained recovery among the migrant population.
The Eastern Shore of the Bay is the most important wintering ground for the birds, but most people-including biologists-failed to quickly detect the dramatic decline because of a corresponding increase in the number of troublesome, non-migrating or "resident" geese.
"We got surprised in the Atlantic Flyway, where we had a declining migrant population and an increasing resident population and we couldn't tell the difference," said Jerry Serie, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's representative to the Atlantic Flyway Council, which is responsible for managing the birds.
The rise of the resident geese has mirrored the decline of the migratory birds, with their population increasing from an estimated 300,000 in 1989 to more than 1.1 million today.
Resident birds are thought to be derived from a separate subspecies of Canada geese that were either transported here from the upper Midwest, or propagated decades ago, that were ultimately released. They have inhabited golf courses, public parks and other areas where they are protected from hunting, often increasing to the point of becoming nuisances to farmers and other landowners. Because they do not face the demands of migration and tundra weather, they are also more successful at reproduction and survive at a higher rate.
The migratory birds, meanwhile, were not only facing excessive hunting pressure because their decline was masked by the increase of resident birds, but their reproduction was hurt by a series of harsh winters in the Canadian tundra where they nest.
Each spring, migratory geese return to their breeding grounds on the Ungava Peninsula-a vast expanse of land separating Hudson Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. In several recent years, though, the geese have returned to find the nesting grounds still frozen, a condition that forces the birds to burn their energy reserves to the point that many females can no longer lay eggs and those that do have smaller clutches.
Because of those conditions, Harvey said it was possible that-despite a two-year closure of the hunting season-the population had not increased prior to this spring. But if this year's hatch is followed by good reproduction next year, Harvey and Serie said it would be a likely sign that the population is on the road to recovery.
Serie said that if the breeding population increases again next spring and they have another good hatch, a "limited" hunting season on the migratory birds might be allowed in the near future.
But, Harvey said, it would be good to protect the large number of birds hatched this year as much as possible until they enter the breeding population three years from now in the spring of 2000.
"We had good production this year, and three years from now those birds will start to enter the breeding population," Harvey said. "It would be nice to think we could allow that to happen. We have a lot of work to do before we start to think seriously about a hunting season," he said.
Hunting decisions are made by the Atlantic Flyway Council, an organization that represents the eastern states, Canadian provinces and federal officials in both countries along the flyway.
Meanwhile, biologists say the sudden demise of the birds has resulted in a stepped-up monitoring program - including a satellite tracking program on a handful of Canada geese - which is providing insights that will improve future management.
Previously unknown migratory stopovers have been identified and may be targeted for protection, they said. In addition, the timing and routes used by the migratory birds is becoming better known.
That may allow managers to develop new hunting measures that increase pressure on resident birds while minimizing pressure on the migratory population, although Serie said that hunting alone will probably not be enough to control the resident goose population.
Ultimately, Serie said he would like to see the number of resident birds cut to no more than half a million, while restoring about 1 million migrating birds along the flyway.
"Most of those migratory birds were not really causing depredations, they were not really a nuisance factor," he said. "They did provide a pretty sophisticated hunting program, almost a commercial hunting program, and a lot of people were generating their livelihood from guiding goose hunters on the Eastern Shore of Maryland."
The migratory birds tend to return after harvests in the fall so they cause less crop damage to farmers, Serie said, and they tend to keep their distance from subdivisions and suburban lawns.
"People enjoy seeing those large migrating flocks," Serie said, "They're pretty wild and wary when they get here, so they occupy less residential space. They don't really come into close proximity to a lot of people."