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Atlantic Population of Canada Geese Status and Management

The Atlantic Population (AP) of Canada geese was once considered the largest Canada goose population in North America and the staple of waterfowl hunters in the Atlantic Flyway. Winter indices approached one million birds by the mid-1980s and annual harvests often exceeded those of any duck species. However, between 1986 and 1995, the number of wintering Canada geese in the Atlantic Flyway declined from 900,000 to 650,000. This alarming decline occurred despite a rapid increase in numbers of local breeding or “resident” Canada geese.

Breeding surveys of key AP nesting areas in northern Quebec documented a more precipitous decline in AP numbers from 118,000 nesting pairs recorded in 1988 to 90,000 in 1993, 40,000 in 1994, and 29,000 pairs in 1995. This dramatic change in numbers of AP geese, greater than 75 percent in less than a decade, prompted State, Federal, and Provincial wildlife agencies in 1995 to suspend the sport hunting season of AP geese in the United States and in the Canadian Provinces of Ontario and Quebec.

Today, waterfowl managers are faced with the challenge of restoring AP geese as quickly as possible to meet current and future resource demands. At the same time, resident geese are increasing exponentially, now exceeding a million birds in the Atlantic Flyway. Crop damage and public nuisance complaints are at an all time high and are increasing annually. Thus, wildlife managers have contrasting management problems with two similar but yet, distinctly different populations of Canada geese.

Populations of Canada geese are often difficult to delineate and manage independently, especially when they overlap during migration or intermingle on their wintering areas. Because of their similarity in appearance, both size and plumage markings, the general public is often confused by the idea of separate populations. However, biologists are well acquainted with several distinct groups of Canada geese (Branta canadensis spp.), which are distributed widely throughout the temperate and arctic regions of Canada and the United States.

For management purposes, wildlife managers define populations according to regional boundaries, preferably on the breeding grounds where they tend to separate themselves. Each is described as a single population unit, represented by individuals having similar migrational patterns and/or life history traits. In these instances, conventional population surveys and leg-band or neck-collar data provide managers with valuable information used to monitor the status of each and regulate their annual harvests. To date, this information suggests strong population affiliation or fidelity to specific breeding, migration, and wintering areas with little or no crossing-over between populations. Simply put, there is no evidence to suggest that migrant AP geese become members of resident flocks and forego their tradition to migrate northward in the spring.

The breeding range of AP geese extends from Labrador and Newfoundland westward to the Ungava Peninsula of Quebec, with nesting concentrations occurring around Ungava Bay and along the northeastern shore of Hudson Bay. Banding data have revealed that AP geese winter from southern Ontario eastward to Prince Edward Island and southward to North Carolina. Once this population wintered primarily in the southern portions of the Atlantic Flyway, but since the 1960s, wintering concentrations occur mainly in the Chesapeake Bay Region and extend northward to New Jersey and New York. Resident geese (AFRP) breed locally throughout the Atlantic Flyway, extending into southern Ontario and Quebec. They are largely nonmigratory, shifting distributions only slightly in winter, depending on the severity of weather. Thus, both populations have significantoverlapping distribution during fall and winter periods (Fig. 1).

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, low annual survival caused by high harvest pressure, and substantially below average gosling production were the primary factors responsible for the AP decline. Hunting regulations were modified as early as 1988, and again in 1992, to reduce harvest rates and increase survival, but these measures proved ineffective in encouraging population growth. Subsistence harvest of AP geese in the spring by Cree and Inuit groups is also an important source of mortality, but estimates of take during this period are poorly measured. The absence of any breeding-ground population surveys, banding programs, and reliable harvest estimates limited the ability of management agencies to monitor the status of AP geese closely and to effectively reduce harvest rates in time to avoid a total suspension of sport hunting in 1995.

Since the hunting ban on AP geese, managers have turned their attention towards the breeding grounds in hopes of identifying the biological characteristics unique to this goose population. After years of attempting to manage Canada geese from a wintering ground perspective, annual population and production surveys, and banding/marking programs centered on the breeding grounds are now recognized as being crucial to the recovery of AP geese and to the future management of all Canada geese in the Atlantic Flyway.

In July 1996, the Atlantic Flyway Council approved an Action Plan to address the immediate survey and research needs that would help to rebuild AP goose numbers. With support of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Canadian Wildlife Service, Atlantic Flyway States and Provinces, aboriginal groups in Canada, and Ducks Unlimited, this Plan established a short-term population goal of 150,000 breeding pairs in the Ungava Region, 15,000 in the Maritimes Region, and 15,000 in the Boreal Forest Region. Also, the Plan contains provisions for resuming the sport harvest of AP geese and states that “no additional harvest of AP geese will be considered until the breeding population index in the Ungava Region reaches at least 60,000 pairs.” Any resumption of a sport harvest would require evidence of a sustained recovery over several years, and is contingent upon having the necessary monitoring and assessment programs in place to provide a reliable measure of population status and trend. In addition, effective harvest controls will be put in place to ensure that harvest rates are not exceeded that could jeopardize population recovery.

Funding to implement the initiatives outlined in the Action Plan approach one-half million dollars annually and will require long-term commitments among State, Federal, Provincial, Aboriginal, and private partners. Such funding requirements present new challenges for wildlife agencies that have not budgeted for these activities in the past. These constraints must be overcome through new funding initiatives. Public support is also needed to promote greater awareness of sport harvest restrictions in the future. However, we believe that a better understanding of the biology and population dynamics of AP geese will help to consolidate favorable public opinion and provide the base funding necessary to improve the management of AP Canada geese.

Since the ban was placed on sport hunting during the 1995 hunting season, the status of AP geese appears to have improved substantially from the low of 29,000 pairs estimated in 1995. In the spring of 1996, and again in 1997, the index of breeding pairs surveyed in the Ungava Region of Quebec increased to 46,000 and 63,000,respectively (Fig. 2).

Habitat conditions in all areas of the Ungava Peninsula were also dramatically improved in 1997 from those observed in 1996, due to warmer spring temperatures and limited snowfall during last winter. These indices suggest good gosling production in 1997. With the absence of any adverse weather conditions during the brood rearing period, production of young is expected to be the best in many years. Several years of above average production will be needed however to restore AP geese to their former status of the mid- 1980s.

Overall, the recovery of AP Canada geese will depend on renewed cooperation and involvement of all user groups to strengthen our commitment to this valuable resource. Without this level of commitment, we are destined to repeat the mistakes of the past. Ultimately, the real costs will be lost recreational opportunities and reduced economic benefits. Today, as we look cautiously towards the future, a message by Michael McIntosh, from The Grand Passage, rings true “...our job is to accommodate the present, with all its realities, pleasant and otherwise” and recognize that “...we own from the past a great lesson and a costly one. We know now that the Grand Passage could all too easily pass beyond every reach but that of memory. What we do with what we know will be the measure of what we are.”

Prepared by Jerry Serie, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Atlantic Flyway Representative, and Larry Hindman, Maryland DNR, Chairman, Canada Goose Committee, Atlantic Flyway Council, October 6, 1997.

Fig.1. Annual distribution of AP (migrant) and AFRP (resident) geese.

Fig.1. Annual distribution of AP (migrant) and AFRP (resident) geese.

Fig. 2. Estimated number of breeding pairs and 95% confidence intervals of AP Canada geese in northern Quebec, during 1988 and 1993-97.

Fig. 2. Estimated number of breeding pairs and 95% confidence intervals of AP Canada geese in northern Quebec, during 1988 and 1993-97.

Last Updated: December 1, 2015