Big changes are in store for southeast Pennsylvania – including Lancaster County - waterfowl hunters this fall.
Concerned by population declines, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has approved reductions in hunting opportunities for mallards and migratory Canada geese for the 2019-20 season.
When it comes to managing migratory waterfowl, the USFWS divides the nation into four major flyways – Atlantic, Mississippi, Central and Pacific.
Pennsylvania is in the Atlantic Flyway, which generally hugs the Atlantic coastline.
The number of mallards that breed and live in the northeast part of the U.S. – including Pennsylvania – have been slowly declining for the past 20 years.
Pennsylvania Game Commission officials have said the breeding mallard population has been cut about in half over that period, while the overall population is down about 20 percent.
The number of mallards Pennsylvania hunters bag each season has dropped about 40 percent over the past 20 years.
During the 2017-18 season – the last for which the Game Commission has data – Pennsylvania hunters shot an estimated 19,400 mallards, which is 54 percent below the 10-year average.
Biologists don’t really know why mallards in the Northeast are declining. But they have a few theories, including a decline in winter feeding sites, decreases in habitat quality and hybridization with game-farm mallards, which makes ducks less hardy.
As scientists hunt for the culprit, their only recourse in trying to stop the numbers decline is to reduce mallard hunting.
In recent years, Atlantic Flyway states were afforded a 60-day duck season, during which hunters could take up to four mallards per day.
Now, biologists say that’s not sustainable, and so the 2019-20 season will still be 60 days long, but the daily mallard bag limit will be two birds.
Within that daily bag, only one bird can be a hen. That’s a change from what was proposed last summer, when USFWS had suggested allowing both birds to be hens.
A halving of the daily mallard limit certainly is going to ruffle some feathers among area waterfowl hunters.
But I think the Canada goose reduction is going to hit harder.
Among all Atlantic Flyway states, Pennsylvania ranks third in total number of goose hunters, trailing only Maryland and North Carolina.
When it comes to managing Canada geese in Pennsylvania, the state is divided into three zones – the Atlantic Population Zone, Resident Population Zone and Southern James Bay Zone.
Each zone represents the core area of individual populations of Canadas, although resident Canada geese are found statewide.
The Atlantic Population Zone covers the southeast corner of Pennsylvania, including all of Lancaster County, except for a sliver in the northwest that’s north of Route 30 and west of Route 441.
For the past several years, Pennsylvania hunters in the Atlantic Population Zone have been given 50 days to hunt Canadas. During that period, they could take up to three geese per day.
For the 2019-20 season, the hunting period will be cut to 30 days and the daily bag limit will be two geese. The season is scheduled to run from Nov. 19-29 and Dec. 27-Jan. 18.
(The statewide September goose season that targets resident birds remains unchanged.)
“AP Canada geese experienced a near-total reproductive failure in 2018, due to an extremely late spring on their northern Quebec breeding grounds,” said Jeremy Stempka, the Game Commission’s chief waterfowl biologist.
“The best available data indicate recent harvest levels for these species were not sustainable.”
We will learn in about two months how the 2018-19 waterfowl season went in terms of harvest. That’s when the Game Commission will release the data from the most recent hunting season.
But if it’s anything like the previous year, then hunters already know what a bad season feels like. In 2017-18, Pennsylvania goose hunters bagged an estimated 79,000 Canadas. That was down 49 percent from the 10-year average.
Lancaster County is among the most popular in the state for Canada goose hunting. A lot of hunters spend a lot of time in the field hunting geese in this county, and a reduction of 20 days in hunting time, plus the bag limit cut, are sure to cause some pain.
Sure, the September season isn’t affected by any of the changes, but Game Commission data shows it only accounts for 14 percent of the total annual harvest. The fall and winter seasons provide the other 86 percent.
So local goose hunters who recall the goose-population crash from the 1990s are surely keeping their fingers crossed for favorable breeding conditions up North this year.
All Canada goose hunting outside September was closed for a couple of years in Pennsylvania’s Atlantic Population Zone back in the mid 1990s after biologists became concerned about the low number of Atlantic Population geese and the poor nesting effort among those birds over the course of several years.
Those were not fun years to be a goose hunter.