Myth, malady and the Canada goose controversy

As autumn days shorten into winter, V-formations of Canada geese honk across the sky in the mysterious gray light of late afternoon, recalling springtime fluttering over families of downy-feathered goslings. Many park visitors walking the shores of South Lake Washington assume this avian presence to be a primordial glimpse of Pacific Northwest natural history. Probably no one wants them to disappear altogether. Yet, over the past decade, the Seattle Parks Department has received numerous complaints from picnickers and sunbathers disgruntled over grasslands and beaches smeared with excrement.

According to biologist Dennis Southerland of the Utah Department of Wildlife, the average adult male Canada goose produces approximately three pounds of waste daily. Barbara De Caro, Seattle Parks coordinator of Water Conservation and Pest Management, stated that goose droppings have resulted in a steady rise of E. coli levels in Lake Washington. She asserted that this accounts for the "swimmer's itch" some people have experienced. She also indicated that some goose droppings have been found to contain salmonella. However she doesn't know of anyone ever contacting the disease.

Contrary to popular myth, Canada geese are not native to the shores of Lake Washington and the wider Puget Sound Region. According to Roger Woodruff of the United States Department of Agriculture Wild Life Service, the species was introduced by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife in the late 1960s and early 1970s. At that time, flooding in the Columbia River produced a supply of orphaned eggs which were brought here, incubated, and released into parks and rural lands. Woodruff asserted that city lake front parks are ideal habitat for these majestic birds.

Mowed grassland provides plenty of open space where visibility is good so they don't have to worry about predators. In fact, most predators such as foxes and coyotes, even human hunters, have been removed. Woodruff asserted that none of these introduced local flocks ever fly south. They live year round in Prichard Beach, Seward Park, and other comfortable Puget Sound rangelands well stocked with food.

According to Woodruff, local Canada geese populations grew 21 percent annually from the time of their introduction.

"I wish my money would grow that fast," he quipped.

By the late 1980s, 25,000 Canada geese lived here. That was when complaints began pouring into Woodruff's office. Problems ranged from mere annoyance with messy beaches to larger issues such as big ganders attacking people who came too close to their nests. Drastic aircraft collisions were even reported.

Seeking a solutionWoodruff stated that over the past 15 years the USDA, in cooperation with several other agencies, has worked tirelessly on the goose population problem. He said virtually everything, within legal limits, has been tried. Canada geese, after all, are migratory birds and their management is governed by international law via the Migratory Bird Treaty of 1918. Anyone touching a Canada goose operates under permit from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

The USDA in cooperation with the Seattle Parks Department, the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Washington State Health Department, and several other agencies have toiled for 15 years to control the local goose populations. Their first attempt in 1990 was to relocate geese to other areas. Many returned however, and the agencies began receiving complaints about the possibility of disease spreading via their migration. In 1992 the USDA began spraying oil on eggs to prevent them from hatching. According to Woodruff, none of these tactics really worked. Populations continued to grow.

The current practice of rounding up geese, approximately 50 at a time, for mass extermination began in the year 2000. The fowl are lured into baited pens in July during the molting season when they cannot fly. They are then herded into a specially modified truck outfitted with a gas chamber. Finally their carcasses are disposed of in a landfill.

Woodruff asserted that every effort has been made over the years to figure out a way to distribute the carcasses as food. However, his agency encountered many obstacles along the way. Food processing plants charged $7.50 per bird. The price was prohibitive because the Migratory Bird Treaty Act requires that the meat be given away to the needy, not sold.

On top of this, processing firms refused to put their stamp of approval on the packages. What if someone got sick? After all, these are migratory birds: they might have been grazing on lead poisoned grass in Michigan or some other less pristine environs than the Puget Sound Region.

Woodruff reported the following numbers of geese killed: 3,500 in 2000 and 2001; 1,800 in 2003 and 2004; 900 in 2005; and 800 planned for 2006.

Creative alternative

Noting the progressive reduction in numbers, Woodruff maintained that the gassing of geese actually works. There have been fewer geese sightings and fewer complaints.

De Caro said that, because lethal methods have been so successful in reducing numbers to acceptable levels, the Seattle Parks Department will conduct a nonlethal pilot project in several parks including Prichard Beach. Her office made this decision, in part, as a result of pressure from animal rights groups like PAWS and the Humane Society. No geese will be rounded up from the selected parks, but the oiling of eggs will continue. Instead, dogs and lasers will be used to frighten geese away from populous areas. In addition, volunteers will clean up goose droppings on a daily basis.

Utah wildlife biologist Dennis Southerland is skeptical about the permanent effectiveness of gassing geese.

"They will be back," he said. "If you remove flocks from a range land, that leaves territory free for other flocks to inhabit."

Meanwhile in Canada along the shores of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River, an entirely different goose management program is in place. The principle complaint about geese in that part of the world comes from farmers whose grain fields are threatened as dinner targets for huge flocks of migrating water fowl. Even so, Ontario wildlife management policies remain focused on "nurture" rather than "containment." To appease farmers, huge grain fields are planted for the birds' delight. Thousands of acres of park, lake shore, lawn, and roadside greenway are mowed to provide plenty of the short grassy habitat geese love. Issuing the required number of permits during hunting season controls populations. It seems likely that, if goose populations are nurtured in colder, northern climates, they might well migrate to the man-made rangelands in this warmer Puget Sound region.

In response to Woodruff's assertion that "everything" has already been tried, I asked whether, for example, anyone had tried a trapping season in Seattle parks. Southerland had assured me that geese can be trapped.

"Let's say a non-profit agency should obtain a special permit from the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife," I suggested. "This agency would loan out a trap along with special training and instructions to an individual wanting a goose for dinner. The agency would keep track of the number of geese taken and assure that they are not being sold nor any laws broken or international treaties violated."

Woodruff replied that this idea has never been tried anywhere in the United States as far as he knows. He said his office had never thought of it. Nevertheless, Brad Bortner of the U.S. fish and Wildlife Service Permitting Department assured me that he would seriously consider a well thought out proposal like this.

Later I spoke with Don Craigie of the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife. Craigie said he likes the trapping idea and hopes that someone will pursue it. Now that the numbers have been reduced, he believes that this would be a good time to try a more minimalist trap/hunting solution in city parks. No one would have to put a stamp of approval on packaged meat. People would eat at their own risk just as other hunters do that use shotguns in rural areas. Craigie said he hates the thought of so many geese carcasses being dumped into landfills.

"That is not in the spirit of the treaty," asserted Southerland.

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