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A Time to kill
By Chet Hardin

Fed-up officials in Scotia conclude that the only way to rid their lake of Canada geese—and the accompanying goose crap—is to gas the birds

 

Collins Park is a pleasant place to spend a sunny afternoon. Teenagers hang out, sunbathing and throwing Frisbees, while families and friends gather together at the shaded picnic pavilions, and makeshift leagues square off on one of the nine baseball fields. Moms and dads sit on benches and chat as their kids play in the sandy playground. There are six tennis courts and three basketball courts open to the public. In the summer, the amphitheater in Freedom Park, across the street, will host local acts such as Captain Squeeze and the Zydeco Moshers and Hair of the Dog. And, once it is open, hundreds of people will gather on the beach of Collins Lake and swim. The village spends $280,000 a year to maintain this park, and in the summer months, six people work to maintain its 120 acres.

Besides being a picturesque spot for humans to unwind, Collins Park is home to nearly 200 Canada geese. The manicured lawns provide them with a constant supply of fresh-cut grass, and the well- maintained lake and beach are perfect places for the birds to swim and play. There are very few natural predators that the birds need concern themselves with, and hunting is obviously illegal. Many of these geese have spent their entire lives in this urban park. And during the upcoming molting season—which will begin sometime in June and continue through most of July—roughly 90 percent of the geese are slated to be rounded up and killed.

During the molt, geese are unable to fly. The adult geese have shed their flight feathers, and the young have yet to master theirs. The geese, some of which have lived in the park for 15 years, will be helpless. They will be rounded up and removed, then exterminated by carbon dioxide gassing. It is a grisly prospect for some.

“I think it stinks,” says Jennifer Gillooley, a mother from Glenville. “Live and let live, that’s what I say. This is a wealthy community; there has to be other options to killing them. My children have played here since they were little, and it hasn’t hurt them.”

The “it” Gillooley is referring to is goose feces. The numbers aren’t precise, but multiple reports state that the average goose can produce anywhere between 1 to 3 pounds of excrement a day. (That’s roughly 10 percent of their body weight. Imagine.) But excrement is just part of having a park with wildlife, Gillooley says, and more than 2,000 people (notably, most are not Scotia residents) have agreed with her. They have signed a petition circulated by the organization Save the Geese of Scotia in an attempt to stay the imminent culling. They argue that there are better ways to manage the goose population.

The proponents of the roundup—including the Department of Conservation, the United States Department of Agriculture, the Scotia Village Board and the Parks Board—say most of these nonlethal means have been utilized and are quickly becoming ineffective. Further, they say an out-of-control goose population must be viewed on a scale much larger than just one community, 180 geese and a couple hundred pounds of daily droppings. It has the potential to threaten the health and welfare of humans, the geese and other wildlife as well.

“We are near the end of a very long process,” says James Marx, Scotia parks supervisor. “We started managing geese in 1989 after we spotted the first nesting pair. Initially, it was nice to have Canada geese.” But it didn’t take long for Marx to start seeing a problem. By 1995, the population had started to outgrow the ideal number. By 1999, there were 114 geese living in the park.

The majority of the Canada geese in Collins Park are not migratory birds. The major population of migratory geese in this region, referred to as the Atlantic population, breed in northern Quebec, about 1,000 miles north of here in an open-tundra landscape. These are the geese that pass through New York state every spring and fall. Resident geese, however, choose to breed in the more temperate latitudes. Some may migrate as the weather changes, but it is not due to a traditional migration instinct, which kicks in at the first sign of fall weather. More likely, these resident geese will be pushed out by ice and snow. In some years, they may not migrate at all.

This resident population of Canada geese was human-introduced; it did not really exist before the turn of the 20th century. It is a population established in the early 1900s by hunters who were allowed to use live birds as decoys. They would capture migrating birds and keep them in captivity until the fall hunting season. When this practice was eventually outlawed in the 1930s, the birds were released. But with no patterns of migration to follow, they just nested where they were. In effect, the birds were domesticated.

Marx stores boxes of documents about wildlife and water birds in his office. Multiple charts mapping the population of the geese decorate the walls. “We have been studying this very intensely,” he says, and it is easy to believe. Behind him as he rifles through hundreds of pages of documents on his desk, there is a poster of two Canada geese.

“We studied the water birds for 10 years with a management committee,” he says. “At first, the committee recommended nonlethal means of managing the growing bird population.” These techniques included building fences to keep the birds from the beach, egg addling (either shaking the eggs or painting them with vegetable oil to prevent hatching) and even shooting “bird bangers”—M80s—into the gaggle to scare them off. Initially, some of these hazing techniques worked, but the birds were quick to adjust. They got use to the annoyance of the periodic “bird banger” and were able to find ways around the fencing. Egg addling, which was probably the most successful technique, even lost its effectiveness. For six years they were able to stabilize the goose population by addling eggs in the nests on the island in Collins Lake, but the birds got wise; they just moved their nests to the islands in the Mohawk River. These islands are much more difficult to manage. They are considerably larger and virtually impossible to reach if the river level is either too high or too low. “And they are in all different municipalities,” Marx says.

And the population again continued to grow.

‘This has never been a knee-jerk reaction,” says Scotia Mayor Michael H. McLaughlin. In the last two years, the number of complaints about goose nuisances have skyrocketed. The community seems to share a consensus in culling the geese, he says. “No politician is going to go against the community if they still want to be elected. This was the unanimous decision of the park board. It was the unanimous decision of the Village Trustees of Scotia.”

Five years ago, neither the board of trustees nor the park board would have voted for this level of aggression. “We hear very little from residents of Scotia that isn’t supportive. Most of Scotia’s residents use the park, after all.”

“I am a scientist,” says McLaughlin, who worked as an engineer at General Electric for three decades. “If I get enough experts saying ‘Let’s go ahead and do it,’ then I am able to withstand the barrage and stand firm in the decision. None of us want to kill the geese. But all the experts—the USDA, the DEC, academics—they are all telling us this is the best solution.”

Dr. Carl George is a professor emeritus at Union College in Schenectady, where he retired in 1997 after 30 years in the biology department. He spent several years as chairman of the Scotia Park Board, and agrees with the mayor’s position.

“This is a serious matter,” George says. “I do not want to make light of those people who are sensitive to the killing of the geese. I think it is a responsible attitude, and I don’t want it denigrated. But at the same time, it’s an irresponsible attitude. Because, if you look at the big picture, you see that indeed things don’t work that way. What we are talking about is game management. The management of a population. What happens if a species surpasses the carrying capacity of an environment is the environment suffers, it is devastating to the species itself, giving rise to disease and starvation, and the species crashes. Wildlife management has got to be accepted by the public at large and implemented.”

George says the birds are breeding beyond the capacity of the urban habitat to host them. He points to DEC estimates that the statewide carrying capacity for Canada geese is about 80,000. The population is now estimated around 200,000. “You can have such an imbalance of population for a while, but certain physiological reactions will take place, crowding responses, and reduced quality of diet. The immune systems become less competent. You get fowl cholera, you get botulism. And these vicious, overwhelming diseases knock out not only the causative species—the geese—but the other birds they share the habitat with.”

Collins Lake is a major location for the sojourning migratory water bird. They come and use the lake. And the fear is that disease will break out, effectively inoculating the habitat with transmittable disease that will create a crisis not only in the population of Canada geese, but in other bird populations as well. “By dealing with this on a purely cosmetic level,” Dr. George says, “you are doing this population more harm than good.”

The threat of disease and bacterial infection in humans is another motivation for Scotia’s decision. Although there is no empirical proof that the bacteria in goose droppings can lead directly to illness, scientists are starting to find pathogens in Canada goose droppings, Marx says. The goose droppings have been sampled and high levels of coliform bacteria have been found. The Schenectady County Environmental Health Unit has determined that a safe level of total coliform bacteria is 2,400 colonies per 100 milliliters of water for a series of five or more samples in any 30 day period. The goose droppings samples tested had 20,000 colonies per 100 milliliters. E coli, which is representative of pathogens, has been found in the droppings.

“The result with 180 geese, unusually warm weather and weed growth meant last year the coliform bacteria levels went way up in the lake and forced us to close the beach,” Marx says, which cut short the swimming season by six weeks. To avoid a repeat this year, Scotia has implemented a three-pronged approach—to the tune of $150,000—to cleanse the lake water: installing an aeration system in the lake that will reduce nutrient levels; treating the water with flurodone to kill the milfoil; making plans to remove the excess geese. Scotia will spend roughly $3,000 from public funds to remove the birds. Another $3,000 will be needed to test the birds for contaminates and, if clean, to process the meat for consumption. McLaughlin says the village will try to raise the money for the processing from private contributions. Collins Lake water is being tested again for bacteria for the opening of this year’s swimming season, and if the levels come back too high, the beach, which is scheduled to reopen June 3, will remain closed.

 

They’re Everywhere

Scotia’s controversial goose roundup is not the first time these feathered friends (or fiends) have been invited to a gas cookout. Between 1993 and 1996, offiicials in Clarkstown, Rockland County, received hundreds of letters from residents concerned about the copious amounts of feces they said were overtaking schools, parks and playing fields. According to Charles Connington, Clarkstown supervisor of recreation, “We tried everything the government agencies suggested. We used fireworks, goose repellant, and scarecrows. Finally, we had to round them up.”

The geese were living on about 800 acres of manicured parkland, most of which lies between a reservoir and Rockland Lake State Park, perfect breeding grounds for geese. “I thought the goose roundup was successful,” Connington says. “But due to pressure from the community we changed our strategy. We began addling eggs, and now employ a company called Fair Game. We pay them $40,000 per year to run the geese off with dogs. They run seven days a week, 52 weeks a year.” Connington admits the process is not perfect; the geese often come back to the park, and taxpayers foot the $40,000 bill. However, the service has diminished the goose population enough that the park remains in full use.

More recently, in 2005, Dennis Gabryszak, the town supervisor of Cheektawaga, Erie County, was embroiled in a similar battle over Canada geese. “Parents were calling my office, complaining about the amount of waste in the town parks and the football fields,” he says, explaining that football games essentially were turned into goose poop slip-and-slides. Grabryszak contacted the United States Department of Agriculture: “It was on their recommendation that we decided to exterminate the geese.” he explains. “The Canada goose population was way over what the town could handle.”

Between June and July, 106 Cheektowaga geese were collected, killed and shipped to an Albany processing plant for possible use as food in prisons and homeless shelters. However, the meat could not be distributed for consumption and is currently sitting in the plant’s freezer.

Organizations such as GeesePeace and the Coalition to Prevent the Destruction of Canada Geese protested the killings; according to each group’s Web site, they believe people and geese can live in harmony and that nonlethal population control is more successful than extermination. In spite of their objections to the 2005 goose gassing, Gabryszak maintains, “Terminating the 106 geese was the only way to reduce their numbers in our town. We are now committed to using nonlethal means to control the population. Over the past year, we have been administering federally approved nonlethal procedures with great success.”

In spite of various attempts to reduce their numbers, Canada geese are enjoying more and more territory in urban and suburban areas. While egg addling seems to be the most successful means of controlling the population, it is likely that goose roundups will continue to be a last resort for many infested areas.

Richard Chipman, the USDA’s New York state director, says that roundup procedures are taken very seriously: “We do everything we can to respect the community and the wildlife. Taking the life of an animal is not something we do lightly.”

According to Chipman, boats and canoes are used to usher the geese toward the shore, where they are then herded into a fenced area to await crating. Each goose is checked for banding. The bands can tell the officials whether the goose is a resident of the area or has migrated from somewhere else (more often than not, the geese are area residents). After crating, the geese are shipped to the termination site. Once killed, 10 percent of the geese are tested for contaminates. If the meat is safe, it is ground up and shipped out to homeless shelters and prisons for consumption. If it is unsafe, it must be buried or incinerated.

—Ashley Simmons

 

Meet the New Neighbors

In Estes Park, Colo., elk by the dozens wander into town from nearby Rocky Mountain National Park, delighting tourists but annoying homeowners, golfers and others. With the elk population now considered too high, park officials plan to thin the herd by sending sharpshooters into the park at night to pick off some of the elk, using silencers.

Deer stalk the backyards of suburban areas all across the country, and bear sightings in residential neighborhoods are becoming more frequent. Even once-rarely-seen species such as moose, bobcats and mountain lions are being sighted more and more often in developed America. As the phenomenon of once-wild animals elbowing their way into suburban and urban areas becomes more common across the country, cities and town vexed by the “intrusion” are grappling with proposals to control the animal populations, some of them lethal, like the use of bowhunters to kill off excess deer in Long Island and New Hampshire and the gassing of geese in Scotia and elsewhere.

But many experts argue that attempts to kill off excess animal populations, besides being inhumane, will simply prove futile in the long run. Animals are here in the cities and suburbs to stay, they say, and we had better get used to living side-by-side. Anyway, to a great extent, this is a “problem” of humans’ own making, for a couple of reasons. For one thing, residential development has spread closer and closer to areas where wild species once lived well-insulated from human interaction. But there also is a fascinating twist to the theory that animals are encroaching into our territory because we’re taking away theirs. Suburbanization, far from reducing animal habitats, as many people assume, is actually creating them—because many animal species are finding low-density suburbs, with plenty of green lawns and gardens, and other plentiful sources of food and shelter, extremely attractive places to settle down and raise their families. And what the more built-up urban areas lack in green spaces is more than made up for in food, shelter and manmade places to nest, such as chimneys and storm sewers.

John Hadidian, director of urban wildlife programs for the Humane Society of the United States, has seen this coming over his 23 years in the field. “Animals have to survive, have to find places to reproduce,” he says, “and [cities and suburbs] provide ample shelter, food and conditions for them to find their niche.”

Due to the inevitability of sharing our habitat with “wild” animals, and the likelihood that animals killed off in control programs will simply be replaced by new animals, Hadidian strongly advocates alternatives to extermination programs, such as the one planned for the Scotia geese. “It’s a situation that many communities face,” he says. “But the answer is not in killing birds—that’s been amply demonstrated—and it tears the community apart. . . . We advocate for the community-building exercise of finding ways to solve the problem without killing the geese.”

In fact, Hadidian says, once officials declare that killing the animals is not an option, communities tend to work together much more easily to find a solution—it gets the “positive energy” going.

For geese overpopulation, the Humane Society recommends a comprehensive policy that begins with egg addling in the spring, then bringing in dogs or using any other strategies to move them. It is important, he says, to recognize that the geese are here because the environment suits them; but also to make decisions where the birds are and are not welcome. It may be possible to keep them away from a prized park if they are given an acceptable alternative.

“You have to understand what the animals are doing, why they’re attracted to the site, the behavioral tendencies of the animals,” he says. “You try to work with that.”

Seattle officials had been rounding up and killing geese, amid great public outcry, Hadidian says. But a few years ago, the Human Society helped the city set up a partnership to go another route, making long-range strategies, enlisting volunteers to help clean up geese poop, etc. Now, he says, the city is well on its way to “Minimizing the goose presence in the places where they don’t want to see the birds.”

In his travels around the country, Hadidian tries to educate people on the reasons more and more animals are choosing to live in human habitats—and the reasons they shouldn’t be so worried about it. “We try to explain to them that these animals are not out of place—they’re finding new places, and it’s exciting that they’re there,” he says. “For every negative interaction with human beings, there are many more positive ones—you just don’t hear about them. People aren’t used to living with them.”

He reminds people to follow certain rules: Don’t feed them. Make sure that potential nesting sites in your home are unavailable to them. He also reminds them that if you drive one animal out, you’ve opened a place for the next animal.

What the Humane Society is doing on the issue of urban wildlife, Hadidian sums up, is “developing an algorithm for interaction, tolerance and appreciation.”

—Stephen Leon

 

 

 

Long Live the Geese!

“I understand that the droppings in the park are a problem,” says Laura Brown, a Scotia resident and spokeswoman for Save the Geese. “Personally—not speaking for the group—I don’t believe the overpopulation is so much the problem.”

Brown says that for the tax money being paid, the village should employ a park staff that is capable of adequately cleaning the park. That involves a one-time purchase of equipment that could compost the goose droppings; the geese would then be able to remain living in the park.

“That’s not the direction they wanted to go in,” Brown says.

Save the Geese is a local group that has been relentlessly fighting plans to kill the geese, holding rallies, attending village meetings, and presenting alternative solutions.

Here’s the big issue that’s ruffling Save the Geese’s feathers (beyond the obvious cruelty-to-animals spiel): The killing of the geese is simply not a long-term solution.

“It’s a needless killing,” Brown says. “We can get them out—and hence, they wouldn’t be pooping there—without killing them. It’s pointless to kill them, to have another gaggle fly over and see that it’s unoccupied, and start occupying it. Geese are very smart. If they see that [a place] is occupied, they won’t overpopulate their own food source.”

There are at least three local people who are willing to take the geese to live on their private properties, and more local and national organizations are willing to help, but the United States Department of Agriculture strictly forbids the transportation of the geese. Contrary to the myth that the geese will fly back to the park, “most of the geese in Collins Park are resident year-round, because people feed them,” says David Goldschmidt, another member of Save the Geese. “As such, they don’t have migration patterns, so if relocated, they won’t return to Collins Park.”

“Another concern of mine,” Brown says, “is that these five [village trustees] have made this decision without much public consensus, and despite the uproar, the evidence that’s been pouring in, they’ve refused to even consider something else.”

Brown says that the group’s biggest obstacle in the fight against killing of the geese is that the village board has put up a “stone wall” in regard to hearing alternative solutions to the problem.

Animal activist Pat Keelen, a longtime lover of Canada geese, joined Save the Geese about five weeks ago.

“We do not refute the fact that the population is large—there is a problem there,” Keelen says. “What we disagree with is the mayor’s method of handling the problem.”

When asked if the village trustees and Mayor Michael McLaughlin were receptive to the group’s suggestions and alternatives, Keelen responds, “Absolutely not.”

“We appeared at the last village hall meeting,” Keelen continues, “and we had at least 20 speakers, all against the gassing and killing of the geese and offering all kinds of alternatives and suggestions. [Mayor McLaughlin] refuses to do anything.”

Ward Stone, a wildlife pathologist for the Department of Environmental Conservation, says that the conditions of the park—short grass, landscaping and available water supply—provide an ideal habitat for the geese. These are geese who instinctively know what they want. “The geese have made [the park] their home because it’s attractive to them,” Stone says.

Still, the decision has been made. Sometime in the coming months (unless, perhaps, enough petitions are signed and enough of a hubbub is made), the Collins Park geese are sentenced to a Goose Holocaust. They will be captured, gassed, and then buried in a mass grave.

“What message does this send to our kids?” asks Goldschmidt. “When we were rallying, a pickup truck pulled around out of the park. A young boy, maybe 8 or 9 years old, stuck his head out the window and yelled as loud as he could, ‘Kill the Geese! Kill the Geese!’ I didn’t see the driver, presumably his mom or dad, but how sad is that?”

“What really needs to happen,” says Stone, “is we all need to become a little more tolerant of sharing space with other species.”

—Kathryn Lurie

klurie@metroland.net

To learn more about Save the Geese, visit their Web site at savethegeese.webhop.net.


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