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Short-Term Hard Times for the Atlantic Flyway: Brief seasons and tight limits are coming for honkers and mallards.

IT WAS NOTHING short of devastating. What was once an annual $40 million injection into Maryland's economy came to an abrupt end in 1995 when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service closed goose hunting in much of the Atlantic Flyway. The moratorium lasted four years and changed the Eastern Shore's hunting culture for good.

"Most of the outfitters on the Eastern Shore went out of business," says Tyler Johnson, president of the Maryland Outfitters and Guides Association. "It was rough. A few of us switched to ducks or deer and some others got back into it when the season was re-opened, but a lot of people just found something else to do. Motels, restaurants, gas stations, they were all hurt by the closure."

Johnson and his fellow outfitters are bracing for another impending blow to their livelihoods. This year, Canada goose hunters in the Atlantic Flyway will be under a "restrictive" season of 30 days with a daily bag limit of two geese per day in 2019. The Chesapeake Bay region, which includes Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, will see daily bag limits of just one bird. North Carolina hunters will get only 15 days to hunt migratory Canada geese.

"The Chesapeake Bay region was reduced to one bird because that's where the vast majority of the harvest takes place," says USFWS goose specialist Josh Dooley. "Based on banding and other data, the number of Atlantic population Canada geese killed in the other Atlantic Flyway regions is fairly low, which is why the restrictive limit will be two per day in the mid-Atlantic and New England."

The decision to reduce the season is based on the same factors that led to the 1995 closure: Significant declines in breeding pairs of Atlantic populations of Canada geese. The current situation isn't nearly as dire as it was in 1995 when biologists counted just 29,000 breeding pairs on the Ungava Peninsula. Last year's breeding count was 112,000 pairs. That may seem like a healthy number, but two years earlier, there were 191,000 breeding pairs.

"The most recent count was slightly above the threshold for a restrictive season, based on the three-year average," says Virginia biologist Gary Costanzo. "In theory, we could have made a case for maintaining the current moderate season that we have now. Based on what we know, though, we think dropping to a restrictive season next year is the right thing to do. You have to remember that we were still banging away at them during the 2018 season with a 50-day, two-bird-per-day season."

WHY THE BAD HATCH?

In other words, the decision to cut the 2019 season was a preemptive measure designed to stem any further decline. Biologists can only use past data to make future decisions. And past data was nothing but bad.

Last spring, geese returning to traditional nesting grounds were greeted by frozen ponds and a blanket of snow. The unseasonably long snow pack stretched into June and even July in some places, so few birds actually nested and those that did were largely unsuccessful.

"Mid-June is about the cutoff for a successful nesting season," says Dooley. "They either don't nest at all if it gets too late in the season or they just have low productivity because they are in such poor shape from a late thaw. Late spring conditions reduce available food quality and quantity which means they just burn up what fat reserves they have left. That doesn't leave them much energy to produce eggs."

Such a scenario isn't unusual. The Atlantic population has experienced poor nesting conditions in the past and numbers bounced back in following years. However, seven of the last 10 years have seen below average productivity, says Dooley.

"Last year was the lowest ever recorded," he adds.

How low? Technicians on the Ungava Peninsula banded 3,800 adult geese in 2018 spring, but only observed 30 goslings. Typically, they observe about one gosling per adult. Since Canada geese don't reach sexual maturity until they are at least two years old, the poor production in recent years will likely have a lasting impact for several more seasons.

Dooley adds that the abnormally low percentage of juveniles that flew south last winter likely translated to a higher harvest of adult birds. And that will probably depress the number of breeding pairs even more. That's why Costanzo expects the Atlantic Flyway will continue to have a restrictive season for at least another year, likely even longer.

"That all depends on future production. If it is bad again, there is a real possibility we could see another closure," he says. "Geese tend to rebound quite a bit slower than many duck species."

CRISIS AVERTED

Some Maryland hunters actually asked the state DNR to cancel the 2018-19 season entirely at a stakeholders meeting held in September, says Johnson. The agency decided to maintain the established seasons, in part because it was too late.

"That would have been a disaster. People had already paid for their leases, guides had already booked clients and taken deposits," says Johnson. "Could you imagine the fallout from a total closure within a month of the season opening?"

Instead of implementing some sort of emergency change, the DNR promoted a voluntary harvest limit campaign. Called "one and done," it prompted hunters to either quit hunting Canada geese completely or stop their hunt when they shot a single bird. It also suggested hunters switch to more abundant snow geese.

"I have no idea if it will work or not," says Johnson. "I do know the only thing we can control is the harvest, so the fewer geese we shoot this season will mean the more that return to nest in the spring."

Populations did recover fairly quickly after the four-year closure in the 1990s, thanks largely to a series of favorable nesting conditions. The hunting moratorium also played a role in that recovery. Breeding pairs went up to 146,000 in 2001 and nearly 198,000 in 2007. However, it took several more years to go from a restrictive to moderate season framework.

The closure also prompted biologists to come up with better population monitoring efforts. At the time, scientists relied heavily on mid-winter counts to assess goose populations, which included an increasingly larger number of resident geese. They didn't realize how low the number of migratory geese had fallen.

"Thanks to those improvements in survey methods, we can better assess the population now and how quickly things are changing," says Dooley. "We are using the best data available to make sound, science-based decisions."

Those decisions may not be popular with hunters, but no one wants a replay of the 1990s.

FIFTH FLYWAY | By Joe Genzel

PUBLIC-LAND BATTLES

It looks like famed canvasback mecca Catahoula Lake will become off-limits to public duck hunters and fishermen, in 2006, Steve and Era Crooks (emphasis on "crook"), took the state of Louisiana to court over ownership of the lake. An initial ruling deemed Catahoula a private river and ordered the state to pay landowners millions in damages. That ruling was upheld in December by an appellate court. The state can take the case to Louisiana's Supreme Court as a last resort, but no word on that yet.

UK E-COLLAR CONTROVERSY

The Brits are trying to ban e-collars, citing cruelty to dogs and cats--apparently kittens make retrieves in jolly of England. Environmental Secretary Michael Gove and an animal rights group lead the charge. The tree-hugging wimps say e-collars deliver 6,000 volts of electricity, which is ridiculous to duck dog owners who test the stimulation strength of an e-collar before placing it on a retriever. Several other European countries have banned e-collars, but these are people who still think good oral hygiene is a bubble.

BIG CITY GEESE

Our biologist buddy, Ryan Askren, an avid hunter and photographer, sent us a study he and others have been working on for the last six years. The focus was to better understand the ecology of Chicago's Canada geese, which have invaded parks and greenspaces. Some actually do migrate back to northern Hudson Bay, a 3,000-mile journey, a shock for anyone who has spent time in the Windy City. The hope is to mitigate negative human-goose interactions, but unless they open up a special season on Lake Shore Drive, city folks will just have to put up with walking on goose poop.

PASS SHOTS | By David Hart

CULL THE FISH-EATERS

Ontario officials are considering a season on double-crested cormorants. The season would from March 15 to Dec. 31, with a 50-bird daily bag limit, aimed at reducing the birds' growing numbers, which are having a negative impact on sport fishing and to trees where the birds roost.

FARM BILL DELIVERS

Programs like CRP, the Regional Conservation Partnership and the Agricultural Conservation Easement ($2 billion over the next 10 years) all received more funding thanks to the 2018 Farm Bill. Land enrolled under the Working Lands program will also see beneficial changes.

FLYWAYS SHIFTING

A popular waterfowl website has moved. The information on flyways.us will now be found on the USFWS migratory bird program website. Flyways.us was the primary clearinghouse for waterfowl hunting-related data, including harvest reports, banding data, duck counts and other information.

JERSEY MARSH BOOST

An additional 1,772 acres of NJ tidal marsh will be permanently protected, thanks to DU and its partners. It came through a $1 million North American Wetlands Conservation grant and $3 million in matching funds from DU, the Nature Conservancy, the New Jersey Conservation Foundation and the USFWS, among others. The land is open to public hunting.

BY THE NUMBERS

90 percent of U.S. duck production " that takes place on private land.

25 percent of speckle-belly feeding time that is spent in flooded rice fields.

155,000 estimate or tne Atlantic population o geese, which will result in a one-bird limit and 30-day season for hunters in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia.

27 million CRP acreage cap for the next U.S. Farm Bill. Current cap is at 24 million.

FOWL FACT

Labrador retrievers did not originate in Labrador, but Newfoundland. They were brought to England in the 19th century and became a popular gun dog after World War II.
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Title Annotation:CONSERVATION CORNER
Author:Hart, David
Publication:Wildfowl
Geographic Code:1U5MD
Date:Mar 16, 2019
Words:1705
Previous Article:Rounding the Corner.
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