Some higher-ups in Maryland's Department of Natural Resources are walking around with wounded looks after a complicated plan to reopen hunting for migratory Canada geese got shot down.
DNR called for a six-day season this winter, but not everyone would get to hunt. Guidelines from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which oversees migratory waterfowl regulations, gave the state a quota of 12,200 birds to crop from the wintering population--fewer than the number of potential hunters. It meant Maryland waterfowlers would have to apply for a permit, get picked in a lottery, be sent a tag to attach to a goose they downed and phone DNR to report the kill.
When the scheme was sent out for public review it was all hunters could do to keep from laughing out loud. Officially, DNR said public comment was 65 percent opposed; privately, officials say it was closer to 80 percent or 90 percent against. Last week the agency's new secretary, Sarah Taylor-Rogers, officially dumped the idea, so there will be no season for migratory Canada geese on Maryland's Eastern Shore this year.
Meantime, in Virginia, where fewer migrating Canadas overwinter and the impact of hunting them is considered less significant, USFWS offered a six-day season, Dec. 27-Jan. 1, with no strings attached, except for no hunting in Back Bay. The state accepted.
That may explain why Maryland officials are glum. They hate it when Virginia gets something they don't, which is understandable. What is less understandable is why Maryland officials were surprised when hunters issued a collective "No way" when faced with the prospect of wading into a boot-sucking bureaucratic morass for the chance to shoot a goose.
Anyone in the mid-Atlantic who wants a goose for Christmas dinner has plenty of options. The population of resident Canadas on the western side of Chesapeake Bay--those birds you see flying over the Beltway all year, that live on golf course ponds and in community parks--is booming to nuisance proportions. Both states have long hunting seasons and liberal bag limits for resident Canadas. Seasons start in September and end in February, with limits of up to five birds a day.
Telling the difference between resident Canadas and migratory ones on the wing is for experts only. They taste about the same, too. But they have had very different survival stories the last couple of decades.
Migrants--the ones that fly north to Hudson Bay in spring to nest, then return here in fall to winter in farm fields--were hammered by Eastern Shore hunters in the 1960s, '70s and '80s, when Canada goose was king there and gunners flew in from around the world to shoot. Flocks started to decline, then poor nesting years compounded the problem. The spring nesting population fell to 29,000 pairs before hunting was halted in 1995.
Meantime, resident Canadas on the western side of the bay were reproducing like rabbits. They face little hunting pressure and few predators, and have plenty of grass to eat at recreational and business parks, golf courses, turf farms and the like.
As hunting seasons on resident Canadas expanded, many gunners who used to go for migratory birds on the Eastern Shore switched to resident birds on the Western Shore. But if they're anything like me, most were disappointed. Migratory Canadas are wild as the wind that brings them: wary, lean, high-flying and difficult to fool. Resident Canadas are generally low-flying, plump and so easy to trick. There's not much challenge in hunting them.
That's why Maryland officials considered it a big deal when they proposed to reopen the Eastern Shore season on migrants this year, after nesting pairs in Canada rebounded to a respectable 77,000. They considered it a first step in a slow trek back to a limited version of the old glory days.
But Maryland hunters responded warily, much as fishermen did 10 years ago when the state decided to reopen rockfishing after a five-year moratorium. After all, the very officials who had overseen a precipitous decline in one of the state's most treasured natural resources were the ones assuring us, then and now, that things are better.
The rockfish lesson is worth reflecting on. After a five-year moratorium, rock were so abundant in 1990 anyone could catch them. Slowly in the years since, catch limits and commercial quotas have ratcheted up to the point that plump, keeper rockfish are hard for weekend warriors to find these days, despite Maryland officials' protestations to the contrary. In fact, the federal Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission recently notified Maryland and other Eastern states they must cut back the catch next year after overfishing to the point that rockfish stocks are in decline again.
Hunters and fishermen alike get hot when they see public servants who are charged with protecting resources fail, and they don't quickly forget. This is the lesson Maryland officials should take from the abortive Canada goose proposal.
If there are so few migratory Canada geese on the Eastern Shore that we have to create a bureaucracy to make sure only 12,200 are killed, not 12,201, why not just give the birds a few more years of protection to get them well and truly back on their feet?
Just how good can you feel about taking a wild bird from a population so marginal, you have to call the state and tell them you did it? Thanks anyway, but I would rather let that bird go home and nest.