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Why Is the Coastal Zone Canada Goose Season More Liberal Than the North and South Zones?


by Ted Nichols, Wildlife Biologist
Waterfowl Ecology and Management Program
April 25, 2018

Setting hunting regulations for a game species with two or more populations, particularly populations that might have different population trajectories, can be challenging. Canada geese are a prime example. Within New Jersey there are three distinct populations of Canada geese: Atlantic Population (AP), North Atlantic Population (NAP) and Resident Population (RP). AP Canada geese nest in the boreal forest and tundra of northern Quebec with the densest populations along the Ungava Bay and Hudson Bay coasts. NAP geese nest further east in Newfoundland, Labrador, and Greenland.

Collectively, AP and NAP geese are colloquially known as "migrant" geese since they breed in the sub-arctic and migrate south to spend winter. AP geese winter throughout eastern North America, but are most concentrated in the Mid-Atlantic (including New Jersey) and Delmarva. NAP geese have a strong coastal affinity, wintering from Prince Edward Island to North Carolina with the core wintering area from the Maritimes to Long Island.

RP geese breed in southern Canada and throughout the US and generally make no or relatively short migrations in winter. Although all 3 populations of geese readily mix in fall and winter, RP geese are present in the states during spring and summer. RP geese have readily adapted to human-dominated landscapes and are generally the goose population responsible for damage complaints regarding droppings and poor water quality.

Although Canada geese from all 3 populations look physically similar and are the same species (Branta canadensis) they are different subspecies or "races". AP and NAP geese collectively belong to the races B.c. interior and B.c. canadensis while RP geese are primarily derived from a mix of mid-latitude geese including B.c. maxima and B.c. moffitti. Morphologically, AP and NAP geese are slightly smaller than RP geese although there is considerable overlap in their skeletal sizes.

Geese are very philopatric, or faithful, to their breeding areas. Banding data suggest that geese generally remain in the same breeding population through the duration of their lives. Contrary to popular belief, AP and/or NAP geese did not stop migrating, or switch to live the leisurely life of RP geese. AP and/or NAP geese hatched in the boreal forest or tundra continue to migrate and return there to nest while RP geese stay in mid-latitude areas to nest. The rapid increase in RP geese observed during the 1980-90s was simply due to high survival and reproductive rates of RP geese during that time.

Because Canada geese from different populations look physically similar and cannot be distinguished from each other in a hunting situation or even in hand, harvest regulations are frequently constrained by the population with the lower ability to withstand hunting pressure when 2 or more populations of Canada geese are mixed together. This is the case in New Jersey during fall and winter when AP geese are mixed with RP geese throughout the state. This period when Canada goose populations are admixed, corresponds with the "regular" season, that is, the traditional goose hunting season from November through January which is the preferred hunting period for most waterfowlers. In most geographic areas of North America, including New Jersey, one or more populations of sub-arctic nesting migrant Canada geese can become the limiting factor when setting season length and bag limits for Canada geese in that geographic area.

To manage and provide opportunity to hunt RP geese, but avoid harvest of NAP or AP geese, special seasons are designed to harvest RP geese when and where possible. For example, September seasons occur before the onset of migration thereby directing all harvest pressure at RP geese, so special regulations including liberal bag limits, unplugged shotguns and extended shooting hours are permitted. In New Jersey, special winter seasons, also with liberal bag limits, are held in areas of the state that have relatively low populations of AP and NAP geese during late winter.

To further manage RP geese, the Atlantic Flyway Council uses Resident Population Zones and has designated Canada goose management zones based on the affiliation of wintering geese in those zones (Figure 1). The Flyway has agreed-upon criteria for establishing and maintaining RP Zones and evaluations of criteria and leg band recoveries are conducted every 3-5 years. These criteria are based on historic and contemporary band recoveries of migrant geese in these zones. In essence, the harvest of AP and NAP geese in RP zones must be small for an area to qualify and be maintained as an RP Zone. Since RP Zones have fewer migrant geese, they have more liberal regulations (e.g. 80-day season; 5-bird bag) than AP or NAP Zones which are typically 50-70 days with bag limits of 3 or fewer birds.

Figure 1. Canada goose zones in the Atlantic Flyway
Canada goose zones in the Atlantic Flyway.
Click to enlarge

Figure 2 shows the contemporary locations of AP band recoveries (n=607) in New Jersey. Although 607 band recoveries over the past 15 years may not seem like much, it is important to remember that each individual band recovery represents hundreds of harvested AP geese. Although there are "hotspots" of AP recoveries throughout New Jersey's agricultural regions from Sussex to Cumberland, the Coastal Zone contains only about 4% of New Jersey's AP recoveries. Further, and although not mapped in this document, the Coastal Zone comprised only 17% of New Jersey's NAP recoveries. Given that there are relatively few migrant Canada goose recoveries in the Coastal Zone, in 2015 New Jersey proposed, and was approved by the Flyway to change the Coastal Zone from an AP to a RP Zone. Both the South and North Zones greatly exceed the criteria for RP Zones and remain as AP Zones.



Waterfowl and Migratory Birds In New Jersey

Figure 2. Leg band recoveries of Atlantic Population (AP) Canada geese in New Jersey by 10-minute block, 2000-2014.
Canada goose zones in the Atlantic Flyway.
Click to enlarge

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Last Updated: April 25, 2018