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By Joe Albanese - April, 2014

Throughout NY State there are several different boundaries set up for waterfowl hunting. Ducks and geese even have their own separate zones, and season dates. Here on our own Long Island, we now have three separate zones for our goose population.

While the duck regions are often broad, the goose zones are very specific. That is because the managers, in this case the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, with guidance from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service; don't have to contend with a large resident population like they do with geese. Even though NY does host a large breeding population of certain species, they almost all migrate, unlike some Canada's that have set up year round populations in certain areas.

All of this brings us to those numerous goose zones. State and federal authorities here have studied Canada geese extensively over the last century in the state, as well as agencies in Canada. As a species, they have recently even been divided into two distinct groups; Canada and Cackling Geese. Beyond that, they have been divvied up into separate populations.  The subtle taxonomic differences between the subspecies are beyond the scope of this article, as they would take up volumes.

goose sexingHere on the East Coast we are dealing with Canada's almost exclusively, although we certainly do encounter an accidental Cackler vagrant from time to time. But for our purposes lets just consider two groups of Canada's: residents and migrants. These two groups form the basis of all population management.

Canada geese were hunted to the point of near extinction in portions of the United States. Liberal bag limits and excessive pressure from sporting clubs, along with egg collecting and the development of wetland habitats, conspired to all but eliminate the iconic goose of the East. Draconian regulations of one-bird limits, or no seasons at all were put in place in some regions to protect the remaining birds. Hunters everywhere were reeling from the near loss of a favored quarry.

There are many theories as to where all of these resident geese came from. One such theory is that the clubs that were instrumental in the over harvesting set out to supplement the ailing goose populace. These sportsmen, perhaps foolishly, then sought to augment the quarry they so loved. Hearing of a large, hardy goose residing in Michigan, these fellows sought to build themselves a stock of hunt-able birds. So they imported the Giant Canada Goose, a subspecies that typically could ride out tough winters without needing to head south. Another theory is the current residents are the descendants of the geese that were released when the use of live fowl as decoys was outlawed. Wherever they came from, these resident birds have taken over certain areas of the state, and posed a unique issue for managers. There is even a rumor the state itself planted birds here from 1958 to 1965. Other theories state that some geese stopped migrating because of abundant food in an area.

When managers are looking to set up season boundaries and dates, one of the most important pieces of data they have available are band returns. Ducks and geese are banded in a variety of regions, from the high tundra to major metropolitan areas, wherever they nest. While most bands go unreported, about 5% of waterfowl bands are reported. While that may not seem like a lot, return rates from other species can be less than 1%.

geese in penThe vast majority of geese are banded in the spring, during the molt. During this brief period at the end of June and beginning of July, Canada geese are unable to fly, allowing biologists and volunteers to corral them into pens. From there, they are able to identify the sex of the birds, and then fit them with a band. The age, sex, and band numbers for each bird are recorded, and reported to the Bird Banding Laboratory at the U.S. Geological Survey. They are then entered into a national database so they can be retrieved later when a bird is harvested or found.

After a band is reported, the USGS compiles all that data. They have created a huge database containing almost all the records for North and South America, as well as other areas. Those with access to the software can look at all the bands that were taken; and can further sort the data by area. They can then take that information and look at the location the bird was banded and determine where that individual was banded; and if it nested or was hatched there.

When setting zones and limits, this is perhaps the single most important piece of information officials have available to them. This database allows them to see where the majority of birds harvested were hatched. This allows them to determine if the geese are residents, or are part of the more vulnerable migratory population. As resident geese are typically considered a nuisance population, the limits are significantly higher in an effort to thin their numbers.

Here on Long Island, we have three zones: Western, Central, and Eastern. Previously, there were only two zones- East and West. The limit on the East was 2, and it was higher on the West. But as resident populations grew, managers took another look at the zones and limits. After careful study, it was decided that three zones would be more effective in managing the population.

The geese on the West end were found to be, far and away, resident birds. Almost all the band returns during the regular season were geese that nested in the immediate area. In fact, studies using collars have found that that population showed almost no movement. I had a GPS backpack on a goose in southern Nassau County that I would routinely check on to determine it was still alive. The entirety of the time the goose wore the transmitter it only gave me two points; the cemetery it fed in and the pond across the street from it.  It would seem there was enough food in the form of grass, and handouts of bread from park goers to not warrant any sort of movement, even during nesting season.

The goose population in the Central Long Island zone is made up of a mix of resident and migratory birds. There was much deliberation as to where to place the boundaries. All of the available data was entered into a geographic information system, and a map was drawn up showing where the harvests had occurred. Heading east from Queens border, the line was drawn along the Sunken Meadow Parkway and then along the Robert Moses Parkway. This boundary was chosen because this is where the harvest data started to show migratory birds. Going west from Montauk, the line was drawn starting at Roanoke Avenue, and heading south.  This seemed to be where the migrants started to dominate the harvest.

The East End has a large number of resident birds during the regular season. There are some residents, but the majority are Atlantic Population birds, birds that nest in Ontario and Quebec. While resident populations have been on the upswing, the Atlantic Population experienced a major decline. In 1988, a survey area in northern Quebec showed 118,000 nesting pairs. In 1995, that same area showed only 29,000 pairs. That’s a decrease of almost 75 percent in less than a decade. The most current survey data I have available to suggests the population was approximately 196,000 geese as of 2007. Although the population has rebounded, this population has shown to very vulnerable, and prone to quick and drastic swings. Because this susceptible population winters on the East End, limits are set low to avoid overharvest.

Joe AlbaneseJoe Albanese is a Wildlife Biologist, with a decade of
experience in Natural Resources. Receiving a Bachelor's
Degree in Wildlife Management from the State University
of New York at Cobleskill, he has worked for a myriad of
government and private agencies, most notably the
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the U.S. Department of
Agriculture. His career has taken him from the shadow
of the Empire State Building to the rugged remoteness
of the Alaskan Bush. He has worked with flora and
fauna, piscine and terrestrial creatures.




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