U.S. wants to thin resident flocks of Canada geese

States would get authority to eliminate 1.16 million birds

March 17, 2002|By Matthew P. Blanchard | Matthew P. Blanchard,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PHILADELPHIA - Farmers and public water officials, beleaguered by exploding populations of Canada geese, hailed rules proposed recently by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that would allow the killing of hundreds of thousands of the birds, which are protected by a 1916 treaty.

Targeted are up to one-third of the 3.5 million so-called resident Canada geese that hang out year-round in the lower 48 states, devouring crops and crowding golf courses and lawns while depositing tons of excrement.

The wildlife agency hopes to cut flocks of resident Canada geese by 1.16 million birds in coming years by giving states the authority to decide when and where to allow such lethal methods as nest and egg destruction, trapping, and goose-slaughter roundups.

"It's about time," said farmer Bill Garges of Buckingham, Pa., who said he had lost 50 percent of his wheat crop from fields turned black with the voracious birds. "They've been robbing us farmers for years."

Goose-control expeditions have long required a federal permit, a permit fee, and weeks of waiting.

With states in control, backers say, goose hunters could wind up with longer hunting seasons and higher bag limits.

The announcement set off loud protests by animal-rights groups and even some state officials, who see the move as a costly federal dumping of paperwork and responsibility on the states.

Truly migratory populations would still be protected, said John Andrew, chief of the wildlife agency's Division of Migratory Bird Management in Washington.

"There would be less paperwork and less federal control," Andrew said.

And, of course, fewer geese.

`It's about time'

"It's about time," said Preston Luitweiler of Philadelphia Suburban Water Co., which operates reservoirs throughout the region that play host to 17,000 geese some nights.

In the city, Fairmount Park Commission officials agree.

"When the picnic tables are surrounded by a very large amount of goose droppings, it's difficult to get people excited about having a picnic," said Barry Bessler, chief of staff for the commission.

Canada geese were once seen as a fragile species. State and federal biologists even resorted to importing thousands of mating pairs of geese from the Midwest in the 1960s to ensure their survival throughout the Middle Atlantic states. The birds thrived, perhaps too well, under the cover of the 1916 Migratory Bird Treaty and the federal wildlife agency.

Some animal-rights groups sense a coming "blood bath" if resident geese lose the full protection of the Migratory Bird Treaty, which sets specific limits on hunting seasons and bag limits of as few as one or two geese per hunter.

"There'll be a completely unjustified and needless slaughter on a scale that's unethical. Basically, a blood bath," said Greg Figelson, director of the New York-based Coalition to Prevent the Destruction of Canada Geese.

Figelson's group promotes the use of such nonlethal methods as harassment with dogs, lasers or firecrackers or replanting landscaped lawns with taller, denser bushes that geese do not like. Such methods are allowable regardless of federal regulations.

Money a problem

And besides, Figelson said, state agencies don't have the money or staff to take over the administration of Canada goose populations.

"State oversight is going to mean no oversight," he said.

Ted Nichols, waterfowl biologist with the New Jersey State Division of Fish and Wildlife, said he was happy that the states would have greater leeway, but he was daunted by the added cost of the responsibility.

"That's like the [U.S. Fish and Wildlife] service taking the six- or seven-digit cost of administering this program and handing it over to the states, saying, `Here, you deal with it now,'" he said. "Unless there's compensation from the federal government, that's no way to solve a problem."

New Jersey and Pennsylvania game officials said it was too soon to gauge what their agencies would do with the increased freedom, should they get it.

The proposed regulations were released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in a draft environmental-impact statement. Several years in the making, the report details six options, from doing nothing to expanding hunting.

The "state empowerment" option, one of the more severe, is the one endorsed by the agency.

A 90-day public comment period will continue until May 30, with public meetings to be held in 11 towns across the country.

Federal officials say the Middle Atlantic states are swarming with resident geese, which migrate only short distances, if at all.

Pennsylvania has about 250,000; in Bucks County alone, there were 60,600 counted in 2000, up from 13,100 in 1980.

New Jersey, with 85,000, claims the highest density of geese in the United States: 12 geese per square kilometer.

They are all part of the estimated 1.1 million resident geese living in the 17 states of the Atlantic flyway - a population that grew at an average rate of 12 percent a year during the 1990s, federal officials say.

If nothing is done, the federal government estimates the Atlantic flyway goose population will top 1.6 million by 2012.

By adopting the new rules, the agency instead hopes to see the flyway population drop to 650,000.

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