SEATTLE, Wash. - Forty years ago, sighting a Canada goose would have caused most residents here to stop and admire this handsome symbol of wildness. Now, many city dwellers wish the geese would just go away.
Hostility to the big birds began in the early '60s, when state agencies relocated about 50 geese from islands flooded by dam construction in eastern Washington. Closer to Seattle, the original population of transplants skyrocketed; currently there are 25,000 birds and the population increases annually at 14 percent.
"Basically we have created a goose buffet with our grass lawns in parks, yards and golf courses," says Helen Ross of the Seattle Audubon Society. She points out that geese have abundant nesting sites, no predators, and easy access to their favorite food: freshly cut grass.
"Geese are symptomatic of our long-term, poor management of urban ecosystems," she says.
As bird numbers climb, so do public complaints. Locals are frustrated by having to jostle the geese for space at public parks. But Seattle residents are not alone. The problem has become so common across the country that now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working on a nationwide study.
Scoping for a solution
While the rest of the country is getting its geese in a row for management, Seattle has been struggling with this burgeoning population problem for over a decade. By the late "80s, Canada geese on the University of Washington campus were no longer charming.
"Students were stepping in goose poop, and during mating season the geese were really aggressive," says Keel Price, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Service. He says this moved the city to form the Seattle Waterfowl Management Committee to devise a management strategy.
Since then, park managers have tried a variety of nonlethal methods. They've tried scarecrows and plastic streamers, spraying chemical repellents, harassing the geese with border collies, and blocking access to water with boulders and shrubs. More drastic methods include relocation, destroying eggs and occasionally killing geese.
"Despite our efforts, the problem is getting worse, and complaints are on the rise," says Donald Harris, head of the management committee. Harris hopes that the involvement of the Fish and Wildlife Service will help state and city officials devise a solution. The agency has held nine scoping meetings across the country in cities including Denver, Colo., and Brookings, S.D., to prepare for a nationwide environmental impact statement for managing the geese.
The scoping meeting in Seattle in February attracted wealthy homeowners, park and golf course managers, as well as animal-rights activists. People were passionate about the issue.
"We can no longer tolerate stepping in the poop," said a lake-front property owner. "The Fish and Wildlife Service should do whatever is possible to eliminate the problem."
An older woman from a wealthy suburb said, "I am worried about my grandchildren getting swimmer's itch from the birds."
But local activist groups protested the idea of destroying Canada geese: "Pooping should not be a capital crime, especially when alternatives exist," said Wayne Johnson of the Canada Geese Humane Coalition, a group that advocates strictly nonlethal methods. "It's not wildlife management; it's a slaughter."
Currently, the agency issues "take permits' but only under special circumstances, says Robert Trost, the Fish and Wildlife Service coordinator of waterfowl activities in the West.
"We only give them out when there's a direct threat to human health and safety - like when there's too many geese on an airport runway," he says.
Now the agency is considering six alternatives to address the population problem. They range from a no-action alternative to a general depredation order, which would allow "any authorized person to take geese posing threats to health and human safety and damaging personal and public property."
According to Trost, different cities may implement different alternatives.
"The further east you go, the more willing people are to kill geese to deal with the problem," says Trost. "In Seattle, people are pretty evenly divided between those who want direct killing of the geese, and those who don't."
Public comments may be submitted until March 20, and Trost says the agency plans to have a draft EIS out by this fall.
David B. Williams is a writer who lives in Seattle.
YOU CAN CONTACT ...
- Stephanie Hillman with the Canada Geese Humane Coalition, c/o PAWS, P.O. Box 1037, Lynnwood WA 98046 (425/787-2500 ext. 256);
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Department of Interior, ms634 - ARLSQ, 1849 C Street NW, Washington, DC 20240;
- Or e-mail your comments: Canada\_Goose\_EIS@fws.gov.
Copyright © 2000 HCN and David B. Williams