Sunday, August 31, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

No refuge in N.J. for Canada geese

Canada geese take off at a Chesterfield farm. AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer
Canada geese take off at a Chesterfield farm. AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer
By Susan Russell

Nature writer and biologist Bernd Heinrich wrote of the gentle temperament of Peep, a Canada goose he studied from gosling to adult stage. "The one word that described her character ... was sweetness - she grew up to be reticent, but she never showed a sign of fear."

Living near Canada geese for most of my adult life, I've seen individuals grieve at the loss of a devoted mate, and remain alone, for years. When treated with kindness, geese are gentle, even when wounded or tangled in fishing line. They will seek out trusted humans for protection, assistance, or simple companionship. Their affinity for humans, often their undoing, is as real as it is misplaced.

Hunted to the brink of extinction, re-stocked for more hunting, and now gassed, the Canada goose is dismissed as "vermin" by hunting and farming interests. Predictably, they call for more killing.

The resident Canada goose, ostensibly protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, finds refuge nowhere. Federal rules make it easier to kill geese or destroy their eggs and nests at parks, golf courses, airports, and farms. Farmers already obtain free permits to do all of the above on their properties.

In addition to regular, migratory, and resident goose-hunting seasons, "special" September seasons for resident geese allow unplugged shotguns, electronic calls, shooting after dark, and 15-geese-per-day kill limits. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services gases geese throughout the Northeast.

By the mid-1950s, hunting had decimated the giant Canada goose. Wildlife agencies and private cooperators restocked geese at private shooting preserves, national wildlife refuges and wildlife management areas. In the Central Flyway, "more than 120,000 geese were handled for restoration purposes between 1960 and 1999."

At Brigantine National Wildlife Refuge, managers pinioned and tethered adult geese as live decoys, luring migratory geese to waterfowl production areas. The birds abandoned migratory behavior and were the progenitors of today's resident geese. In 1985, Cornell University reported that over the years, birds genetically inclined to travel greater distances south may have been steadily removed from the population - by hunters.

In 2012, U.S. hunters killed 15.7 million ducks, 3.1 million geese, and 14.4 million mourning doves. The figures do not include "crippling losses," or unretrieved hits, which researchers say range from 20 to 40 percent of all ducks hit by gunfire.

To supply hunters, federal and state agencies farm ducks and geese annually. "Waterfowl production areas" at national wildlife refuges and elsewhere trap natural predators and provide feeding areas, farm crops, and optimal breeding, nesting, and resting conditions, adding to the number of Canada geese in the Northeast. Geese leave refuges, where they are hunted, only to arrive at parks, golf courses, or farms where they are not wanted - and are often killed as pests.

The federal Agricultural Research Service recommends seasonal flooding of farm fields to attract waterfowl. "Farmers benefit," says the USDA, as "reapers of waterfowl harvest, and by receipt of hunting fees for use of their land."

In South Jersey, the USDA's Resource Conservation and Development Council encourages farmers to alter acreage for white-tailed deer, geese, and ducks. For Canada geese, the council suggests planting "70-90" acres of grain and providing "10-30 acres of wetland." Fee hunting potential for Canada geese is "$100-$200 per person per day." This as the Farm Bureau lobbies for more killing to "control" geese.

Paid by public and private kill contracts, the USDA's Wildlife Services has a strong financial incentive to maximize supposed threats caused by wildlife. Herons and egrets are "pests." Frogs and toads, says Wildlife Services, are "road hazards."

The Sacramento Bee reports that Wildlife Services "officially revealed little or no detail about where the creatures were killed, or why. But a Bee investigation has found the agency's practices to be indiscriminate, at odds with science, inhumane, and sometimes illegal."

While Wildlife Services makes a killing destroying geese, USDA waterfowl breeding projects like the Wetlands Reserve Program encourage farmers to raise them, primarily for hunting.

With agriculture and hunting agencies churning out geese, it is their calls for more killing that should be shot down. Without modifying landscapes and farming practices that attract the birds, killing won't work, not for long; other geese simply fill the void.

Geese prefer waste grain, or harvested fields. The birds clean up fields, control volunteer corn, and deposit nutrients in the soil. Geese are wary and seek open vistas, the better to identify predators. Experts caution farmers that cutting outer rows of corn or open spaces near crops will attract geese, as does corn left unharvested, especially during harsh winters when snow covers other foods. They advise planting vulnerable crops near wooded or fenced areas. Indiana officials say that goose grazing on winter wheat does not cause yield loss. Alternative feeding areas, or the ancient practice of tithing, can prove successful.

Wildlife is a public trust. Yet it is owned by firearms and ammunition manufacturers partnered with government wildlife regulators. "Game management," which caused the problem, values certain species' lives only as gun fodder. From the terrifying confines of a carbon dioxide chamber, or when shot from the sky, the Canada goose has paid too steep a price.


Susan Russell is wildlife policy director for the Animal Protection League of New Jersey. selizabethrussell@verizon.net

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