Unwelcome grazers Geese: They're sweeping in and stripping fields, making farmers see red as the state seeks to boost the birds' population, not protect crops.

March 12, 1998|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Lambert Cissel hates geese.

The 59-year-old western Howard County farmer despises the plump fowl that waddle across his fields of sod, chewing once-pristine bluegrass to its roots, leaving droppings and feathers in their wake.

The geese are fouling Cissel's crop of turf -- carpets of grass that he slices off the surface and sells to garden centers. He says that Canada geese cost him about $80,000 a year, a complaint echoed by farmers across Maryland as government measures are aimed at boosting the birds' population, not protecting the crops.

"Look at what they've done," says Cissel, pointing to a patch of sod speckled with white clumps of goose guano. "The grass is short. It's thin. I can't sell this yet. I might not even be able to get it certified."

Though no overall figures are available, farmers are reporting that whole fields of sprouting grain have vanished, and officials in several counties estimate loses at about 10 percent.

"This is becoming a major problem for farmers," says Emily

Wilson, assistant director for government relations for the Maryland Farm Bureau. "The geese are eating crops after farmers plant them." While farmers say they need help, the most recent move was to help the geese.

A three-year ban on hunting migratory geese in the Atlantic flyway has worked. This winter's figure of 275,000 geese in Maryland is up 25 percent since last year. But that's below the 700,000 recorded 20 years ago, so the ban is expected to remain in place for several more years.

While migratory geese have been in decline, the resident population of Canada geese has exploded -- from 10,000 a decade ago to 60,000 last year -- with most living in Carroll, Frederick, Baltimore and Howard counties, according to Larry Hindman, waterfowl project manager for the state Department of Natural Resources.

Abundant ponds and fields in western Howard County attract resident and migrating geese, making that area's farmers the hardest hit, experts agree.

Harm from hunting

The hunting seasons on resident geese might have harmed Howard farmers. That's because after an early three-week season, shotguns in Howard fell silent Sept. 26 -- weeks before the migrants arrived.

But hunters fired away again in neighboring Carroll and Frederick counties for two weeks in November and from Dec. 15 through mid-February because few migrants visited those counties.

The wily geese flew to Howard.

"They're a smart bird," Hindman says. "They're aware of hunting pressures and will live in safe areas. If I were a goose, if you were a goose, you'd rather feed in an area where you won't be shot at."

Howard County farmers are pushing for more hunting, but some environmentalists fear that could endanger the recovery of migrating waterfowl.

"There are other resources they can use," says John Hadidian, director of urban wildlife protection for the Humane Society of the United States. "They should only hunt as a last resort."

Farmers can apply for a special permit with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to kill pesky geese. But western Howard County farmers employ other methods.

Chuck Sharp, who farms about 800 acres, floods 15 acres of corn fields. The combination of water and tiny stalks sprouting above the surface draws hundreds of geese from his other grain fields.

Sharp finds that more effective than the propane cannon he used to fire to scatter the birds.

"You've got to be careful when you use that," Sharp says. "I left it on once and bothered a neighbor."

Cissel and his son Steve chase geese from their sod fields nearly every morning. Steve, 34, often runs after the "arrogant waddlers," flapping his arms and squawking to drive them away.

Can't sit and watch

Bruce Brendel, who estimated that geese will probably devour 50 percent of his 140 acres of wheat, says there isn't much he can do.

After Brendel shoots above their heads, the geese fly around, land on a nearby field and waddle into the wheat again.

"I can't sit there and watch them every day," says Brendel, 50. "They're smart birds and [illegally] shooting them would be like shooting a bald eagle."

Marion Harless, who has farmed in western Howard for six decades, says he has two choices to deal with the birds that will eat about 30 acres of his 100 acres of wheat this year.

He can either build an electric fence and use peanut butter to lure the geese into shocking themselves or shoot several birds, hoping to scare the rest away.


"I can't afford that fence," Harless says. "I just shoot them, and I don't care who knows."

Pub Date: 3/12/98

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