“Something’s Gotta Give” - Should Resident Canada Geese Be Regulated as Migratory Birds?

Posted on July 16, 2013 by Susan Cooke

Back in the 1950s and early 1960s, many feared that Canada geese were following – or perhaps waddling would be more apt - in the footsteps of the carrier pigeon.  Until rediscovered in the wilds of Minnesota, the giant Canada goose, one of several subspecies, was thought to be extinct.  Now the concern in much of the United States is the overabundance of resident Canada geese.  These geese do not migrate to Canada and have flourished in both urban and suburban environs where there is abundant short grass to eat, plenty of water, and few predators.  Averaging a pound of droppings per bird each day, increased numbers of such geese frequent our public parks and beaches, as well as golf courses, farm fields, and backyards, and are often viewed as a nuisance.  Canada geese can also interfere with aircraft takeoffs and landings, as occurred in 2009 when US Airways flight 1549 was forced to land on the Hudson River in mid-town Manhattan.

While the solution to the overpopulation problem might seem obvious, it turns out that control of resident geese is subject to a number of regulatory requirements administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in addition to those imposed at the state and local level.  Such federal authority is said to derive from the Migratory Bird Treaty Act , 16 U.S.C. §§ 703–712, adopted in 1918 to implement the provisions of a 1916 treaty with Great Britain signed on behalf of Canada (Convention Between United States and Great Britain for the Protection of Migratory Birds, Aug. 16, 1916, U.S.-U.K., 39 Stat. 1702).  That treaty protects three categories of “migratory birds”.  One category, entitled “Migratory Game Birds”, encompasses a subcategory identified as “Anatidae or waterfowl, including brant, wild ducks, geese, and swans”.  Under the Act, the hunting, taking, or killing of such migratory birds, as well as their nests and eggs, is only allowed under regulations issued by the Secretary of the Interior.  While the treaty references geese that are migratory game birds, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regulations identify protected birds by their species, thereby encompassing each and every Canada goose, regardless of whether that bird actually migrates. 

In recent years, many nonlethal measures have been implemented to address unwanted numbers of resident Canada geese.  These have included relocating such geese or chasing them away (such as with border collies and even hovering balloons with an evil eye depicted on them) and efforts to make an area less accessible or attractive (such as fencing and netting, as well as more “exotic” approaches like the application of grape flavored Kool Aid).  However, as the population of resident Canada geese – and complaints about their presence - continued to grow, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a final rule in 2006 to expand the methods for controlling their numbers. 

Those new measures include categorical orders allowing airports and farms, as well as governmental authorities dealing with a public health threat, to implement various control actions without obtaining permits if specified procedures are followed, including the submittal of reports.  Those actions encompass hunting, taking, and killing of resident Canada geese, as well as removing their nests and preventing their eggs from hatching (typically by coating them with corn oil), generally during the time period when their migrating cousins are “out of the country”.  In addition and after filing a registration, landowners, municipalities, and other governmental authorities may remove Canada goose nests and oil their eggs from March through June in accordance with similar requirements.  Expanded hunting opportunities and methods are also provided for, along with a state-regulated, “managed take” hunting program during August. 

Although such measures were intended to reduce the overall population of resident Canada geese by about one third over a ten year time period, their success in many areas of the country – including in my neighborhood - is not readily apparent (e.g. I, II, III, IV).  Moreover, they can require the commitment of significant management resources over the long term.  As a result, there have been calls for less fragmented, regulation-focused measures.  For example, New Zealand has removed Canada geese from its list of protected species and allows them to be hunted and killed at any time of year without a license by “humane means” (which at present would not include poison).  While such an approach may not work in this country, particularly in urban and suburban areas where hunting is unlikely to address unwanted concentrations of the geese and vocal constituencies oppose any significant culling of the resident geese population,  “something’s gotta give”.

Perhaps the place to start is to carefully consider whether resident Canada geese fall within the purview of a treaty and implementing statute that provide for protection of birds that migrate from one country to another, particularly where the stated premise for doing so is the concern that the migratory birds are subject to potential extinction due to lack of adequate protection.  In that regard, the pertinent part of the 1916 treaty refers to migratory birds “of great value as a source of food . . . [that are] in danger of extermination through lack of adequate protection during the nesting season or while on their way to and from their breeding grounds.”  The Act in turn declares it unlawful, unless permitted by regulation, to hunt, take, or kill migratory birds or their nests or eggs covered by the treaty, with the Secretary of Interior authorized to allow such activities to the extent compatible with that treaty, giving “due regard to the zones of temperature and to the distribution, abundance, economic value, breeding habits, and times and lines of migratory flight of such birds”. 

By making such a distinction between resident and migrating Canada geese, it would then be possible to develop a scientifically based methodology for more effectively managing overpopulation of resident Canada geese, one that may not rely so heavily on the granting of hunting licenses or the removal of nests and egg oiling with all the bells and whistles now attached to such privileges.  Moreover, distinctions could be made between control strategies utilized in urban and suburban areas and those best suited for use in rural or sparsely populated areas.  And here’s hoping that this can be done expeditiously, before more of our public water supplies are threatened, and our parks and beaches are despoiled. 



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