Saturday, February 14, 2009

Amid an excess of killing, calls to slaughter more geese

Posted by Susan Russell/ NJ Voices Guest Blogger February 14, 2009 5:28AM

The Star-Ledger is no stranger to lethal solutions for Canada geese, even when killing isn't the long-term answer.

The U.S. Airways accident occurred amid a prolonged surfeit of killing. Federal rules already allow unbridled killing and nest destruction, especially around airports. In most of the country, state hunting departments set extended seasons for local Canada geese. 

New York's airports are on the Atlantic Flyway, the ancient migratory route for millions of birds, and hundreds of species. Strikes involve not only geese, but laughing gulls, wood storks, starlings, even lone birds. In 1905, Orville Wright's plane hit a red-winged blackbird.

A former Port Authority bird control expert called the U.S. Air collision "freakish." He explained: "There's nothing they can do about geese flying from Canada when you've got a natural flyway here - unless they go to Canada and kill all the geese."

Canada's transportation agency writes: "Geese, like other waterfowl, are attracted to habitats that meet their basic needs for water, food, nesting and security. Given that many of these needs can be met on and around airports, habitat modification is needed to maintain airport safety. As well, habitat modification is the best overall approach to long-term bird control." 

At Vancouver International Airport, long grass kept both geese and ducks out sensitive areas. Airports in the Netherlands replaced grass with herb-rich vegetation - more wildflowers and fewer grasses - that flourished in poorer soils. Plans can include alternative sites where birds can safely rest and feed. 

New York and New Jersey augment regular seasons with September and January hunts. Last year, New York reported 52,000 Canada geese killed during September alone. New Jersey allows the use of electronic calls, unplugged shotguns, liberal kill limits, and shooting after sunset. 

The 2007--2008 shooting seasons claimed an estimated 936,000 geese, mostly Canada geese, on the Atlantic Flyway. The figure doesn't include waterfowl hunting crippling rates, which federal authorities estimate at higher than 30 percent. The USDA kills thousands more, as do private contractors. (See, Union County.) Farmers have relative free reign.

Absent landscape changes, the birds will sooner, or later, fill any temporary void. Killing massive numbers of geese does not keep survivors away from enticing neighborhoods.

In the late 1990s, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources set liberal, statewide shooting seasons for resident Canada geese. By 2005, the statewide resident goose population "continued to fall precipitously," from 320,000 birds in 2000 to l65, 000 in 2005, when alarmed officials curtailed hunting. Even then, surviving birds continued to nest in Michigan's urban parks. How odd that New Jersey claims the bird's numbers are "up."

Two federal agencies, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, produce waterfowl for gunning. As geese are pursued and killed as pests, both are given a free pass.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service runs waterfowl breeding, and hunting, programs at national wildlife refuges, re-supplying birds lost to hunting, trapping natural predators, and adding to the number of Canada geese in the populated Northeast. 

The USDA oversees several programs that encourage farmers to raise waterfowl for gunning. "Farmers benefit," the agency says, as "reapers of waterfowl harvest, and by receipt of hunting fees for use of their land" - as USDA reaps lucrative contracts killing geese. The annual federal farm bill is laden with waterfowl breeding incentives -- for gunning.

Hunted to the brink of extinction, the embattled Canada goose has come full circle. Beginning in the 1950s, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state game agencies, and private preserves reintroduced the birds for gunning purposes. Use of live decoys and lure crops taught relocated geese to disengage from migratory behavior.

For the agencies, the phenomenon was win-win. The bonus seasons allow game departments, says the government, extra revenue.

The geese stayed because we extended the invitation. Like us, nesting parents choose real estate for their kids. The goose version of a house in the suburbs and good schools is water surrounded by fertilized turf grass, and little else. The clear line of sight allows highly protective parents to better identify natural predators.

Airports, parks, golf courses, corporate and school campuses, proliferating playing fields, and private waterfronts supply not only housing, but a steady diet of gourmet fare. Geese love nothing more than tender shoots of mowed, fertilized turf grass. 

Manicured landscaping is bad for the environment, stripping shorelines of native long grasses, wildflower meadows, shrubs and trees.

Restoring degraded landscapes reduces pesticide use, protects watersheds and prevents flooding, hosts pollinators, improves soil, air and water quality, promotes a natural beauty, and encourages geese to move on. 

Old ways of thinking, and easy prejudices, die hard. Killing and cruelty aren't the answer. Landscaping is. That's a fact.

Susan Russell is former legislative advisor for the Animal Welfare Institute in Washington, D.C., and former campaign director and lobbyist for New Jersey's Wild Bird Law. She lives in Fair Haven.

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