Pity the poor Canada goose. It leaves the nesting grounds in September facing 153 days of gunfire, including the last 90 in its favorite wintering grounds, Maryland's Eastern Shore, so-called goose capital of the world.
But Maryland has become so inhospitable, with its long hunting season and heavy pressure, the geese are moving north to less perilous places, threatening the state's $40-million-a-year waterfowl hunting industry.
In an effort to halt the northward migration, Maryland officials this month will propose cutting back goose season, probably to 70 or 80 days next fall, and setting back opening day from late October to sometime in November.
They hope by the action to stop a 30-year trend of Canadas wintering farther and farther north. For 20 years, Maryland reaped the benefits of that trend as its flock grew and the population declined in the Carolinas.
But Maryland's flock is diminishing now as more geese winter in New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York and even New England. Maryland hunters probably killed fewer than 200,000 Canadas in the season that ended Friday, compared with 300,000 in 1983, the highest total ever. The population index of geese (significantly lower than the actual number in Maryland) has dropped from 645,000 in 1976 to 500,000.
Have hunters blasted the goose that laid the golden egg?
Larry Hindman, head of the state's waterfowl program, doesn't think so, but he concedes that "hunting pressure is too high in some areas and we need to look at ways to change that."
Hunting success is off, Hindman said, in Talbot, Dorchester and lower Queen Anne's counties, the southern end of goose country where bird populations in some places are half what they once were.
"This season was the worst I've ever had," agreed Ray Marshall, who has run a commercial guiding operation in Talbot County for 18 years. Yet a few miles to the north, in Kent County, the good times roll on.
"The Chester River is just plain loaded with geese," said Dick Manning, president of the Maryland Waterfowl Outfitters Association. Manning has been guiding 30 years and said this was an excellent year.
Hindman expects Manning's newly formed organization to speak up at public hearings on his proposed cutbacks, which he will announce Feb. 20. Manning said commercial guides generally want to "leave it (the season) like it is, maybe with a little later start."
It will be interesting to see how much attention the state Department of Natural Resources pays to the commercial hunting guides, who in the past have exercised considerable voice in goose regulations.
Maryland went to the 90-day season in 1977, to the delight of commercial gunners, when expanding populations had officials worried about crop depredation and the possibility of epidemic disease wiping out crowded flocks.
"I have the feeling now we may have gone too far," said Vern Stotts, who headed the waterfowl program at the time. "We were fumbling around, trying to see what effect a longer season and bigger bag limit would have, and I think we found out. It appears that the population is going down and continuing to move northward."
Stotts said the early opening day, also started that year, represented one of two schools of thought: to open early in hopes all the shooting would encourage geese to move on to the south, or to open later in hopes undisturbed geese would continue south on their own.
Both ideas were aimed at keeping Maryland in the healthy middle of the wintering range by assuring geese to the south. The state chose the first option and it didn't work. The population continued to slide in the Carolinas, where few geese now winter, and Maryland now is at the perilous southern terminus of the goose range, just as the Carolinas once were.
Hindman said there is evidence to suggest that instead of continuing south, some geese hunted early in the season turn right around and go back to places they know are safe. "We've banded birds here in October that were recovered in January in New York," he said.
He said his aims in pushing opening day back are:
To take pressure off early arrivals, the so-called "successful breeders" bringing their young south, which are the very birds he wants to see going back in the spring to breed again.
To give geese that would winter here a chance to settle into feeding and resting patterns so they won't fly elsewhere as soon as the shooting starts.
To give migrants more chance to get through Maryland unmolested and reestablish wintering grounds to the south.
Hindman said his goal in reducing the length of the season is simple: to reduce the kill.
He said he rejected a number of other suggestions, including closing goose hunting one weekday a week, limiting the number of hunters per day who may use a blind, regulating the number of blinds per field, closing afternoon shooting and reducing the daily bag limit from three birds to two.
For his part, Manning doesn't think anything the state does will make much difference. "The problem is a weather problem," he said. "We've had two straight mild falls, and as long as we have mild weather, these birds are going to go only as far as they need to to get water and food. The state has a tendency to panic. Next year might be a different situation altogether if we get some weather."
Stotts figures if the trend continues, some commercial hunters will be getting what they asked for. "I heard one guide say seven or eight years ago, 'If we get 10 more years out of these Canada geese, I don't care what happens to them.'
"It looks like he might be getting what he wanted," said Stotts, "only I see where now he's on this outfitters' committee. Maybe it's not what he wanted, after all."