The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may give states more leeway to control mushrooming populations of “resident” Canada geese, which are increasingly becoming a nuisance at parks, farms, golf courses and other open spaces.
The service has released a draft environmental impact statement that would make it easier for states to undertake new population control strategies such as nest and egg destruction, trapping and culling programs, and expanded hunting opportunities.
Resident Canada geese are distinct from the migratory birds that spend their summers near Hudson Bay and winters around the Chesapeake. The migratory birds — probably the waterfowl most closely identified with the Bay — tend to shy away from humans and are usually found only in sparsely populated areas during the winter.
By contrast, the growing flocks of resident birds have often become pests, denuding grassy areas, such as parks, pastures, golf courses and lawns, especially where there are ponds and other bodies of water nearby.
Canada geese excrete droppings a half-dozen or more times per day. When scores of geese take over an area, they can render it nearly useless to humans. Excessive goose droppings are also a health concern and have contributed to the temporary closure of public beaches in some places.
At airports, resident Canada geese have become a safety threat, creating dangerous takeoff and landing conditions and costly repairs to aircraft.
Because they are present during the summer growing season, they consume crops in agricultural areas. If no action is taken, the service warns, “the conflicts will grow increasingly unbearable.”
Although resident geese don’t migrate — or fly only short distances if they do — they are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. That means they can only be legally taken during a hunting season, unless the service issues a special permit.
While the service has increasingly allowed states to establish special seasons to target the birds and take other efforts to control the geese, they have not managed to bring the resident population under control.
It’s estimated that more than 1 million resident geese populate the Atlantic Flyway, which stretches from the Hudson Bay to the Carolinas, and that their numbers have been growing by about 6 percent a year. Similar population explosions have taken place in other flyways across the nation.
As a result, the service is drafting proposed regulations that would authorize states to implement a number of population control and management actions without having to go through the permit process.
“The Service believes that the problems caused by resident Canada geese can be best addressed at the state level,” said USF&WS Director Steve Williams, in issuing the draft Environmental Impact Statement. “To that end, we are committed to providing state wildlife management agencies with as much flexibility as possible to address the issue.”
Resident geese are thought to be descendants of live decoy birds used by hunters until the practice was banned in 1935, and from birds released in many states during the 1960s and 1970s to bolster declining wild populations. But those birds never learned to fly to northern breeding grounds. Free from the perils of migration, their young had high survival rates, leading to a rapid population growth. At the same time, they began moving into urban and suburban settings, where there is usually little hunting.
Along the Atlantic Flyway, their population boom masked the fact that migratory birds in the 1980s were in a steep decline, in large part because of a series of harsh winters on northern breeding grounds. When aerial surveys of Arctic nesting areas showed they had hit record lows in the early 1990s, the hunting season was closed for the first time ever in 1995.
Bill Harvey, a biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said it has been difficult for management agencies to protect the migratory birds while trying to control troublesome resident populations. Historically, the hunting season has been in the fall and winter, when both populations are present.
“You are always in a dilemma, because we try new and different ways to harvest resident geese, but you always have to keep in mind that you have to minimize the harm to migrant birds whenever you do it during the fall and the winter,” he said. Now, Harvey said, “we might be less likely to look toward the winter as a time to do it.”
The new proposal would make it easier to take management actions between April 1 and Aug. 31, when migratory birds are gone.
In the past, state agencies have been able to take extra actions to control resident geese, but only with a special permit from the federal government.
The Service said that had failed to control the population and that state agencies needed more flexibility, especially to manage birds in urban and suburban areas, where many of the resident birds thrive.
The Service hopes the actions will lead to a one-third decline in the nationwide resident Canada geese population over the next decade.
If successful, it may mean that the migratory birds would again outnumber the resident birds in the region. When the hunting moratorium was imposed in 1995, biologists believe there were only about 300,000 migratory Canada geese along the Atlantic Flyway. When the moratorium was lifted last fall, they believe the population had rebounded to around 700,000 or 800,000.