By Gregg Feigelson, Ph. D.

Canada geese that frequent suburban habitats have been a topic of controversy in a number of municipalities.  Those who complain about the presence of geese are generally preoccupied with the mess associated with goose droppings.  The extent to which a mess is perceived to exist in a given setting is surprisingly variable.  There are those who will survey an area hunched over as if looking for an eyeglass screw, find one goose dropping and proclaim the area should be condemned.  On the other hand, areas do exist which are, by any measure, substantially impacted and should be a legitimate focus of concern.  Unfortunately, the concerns of those directly experiencing goose problems hit center stage only after those individuals have been irreversibly overcome by frustration.  The issue and the process by which meaningful resolution is achieved is a little like a flesh wound which, if left untreated, runs the risk of becoming infected.  In this case, the opportunistic pathogen is the wildlife management establishment.  They prey on the confused and helpless feelings of those facing goose problems and local officials looking for solutions.  In New York State, wildlife management is carried out by the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).

What has transpired in Rockland County, NY, regarding Canada Geese provides exceptional insight into the standard strategies and attitudes not only of the DEC, but also those dominating any government wildlife management agency regarding a variety of species.

In Rockland, the goose controversy began when a town official announced a plan to round up and gas or poison 10-12,000 geese.  [It was determined that there were less than 2,000 geese in the county – exaggeration is an important strategic tool used to prime a fear-response from the public.]  Fortunately, public outcry brought down this scheme and prompted County Officials to organize a Citizens’ Advisory Committee on Canada Geese. The Committee was to study and gather information on non-lethal methods that were known to reduce or eliminate goose-related problems.

A subcommittee prepared a draft report of the committee’s findings.  Before finalization, the draft was distributed to the entire Committee for comment.  Not surprisingly, the component of the Committee known to favor killing geese was very critical of the report.  The most comprehensive collection of such views was submitted by the regional DEC waterfowl manager (not a committee member).  Some of the issues raised by this individual are reviewed here.

Before proceeding, it should be noted that from the outset, some, including wildlife officials and cooperative extension representatives, openly opposed the idea of a committee that did not include goose killing as an option.  This very suspicious view begs the question:  who would advocate the killing of wildlife if it could be avoided?  Precedent reveals that “Citizen’s Task Forces,” “Citizens’ Advisory Committees,” and the like, are usually organized and controlled by state game agencies and cooperative extensions to insure that no opportunities to kill wildlife are overlooked or lost.  The committees are usually set up so that those opposed to killing geese or deer, etc., are hopelessly outnumbered or politically overruled.

The Economy and Philosophy of State Wildlife Management Programs

Advice or opinions from state game managers must be considered in the context of their agency’s operating philosophy.  For example, our regional waterfowl manager’s main objection to the Committee’s report is that it did not include what is often referred to as “long-term management” – in practice this translates into wildlife killing as a yearly event typically in the form of sport hunting.  The game divisions of agencies like the DEC derive income from two main sources:  sport hunting licenses and excise taxes on lethal weapons and ammunition (handguns, semi-automatics, shotguns, rifles, bullets, shot, bows and arrows).  Since the number of hunting licenses sold in each state determines the amount of excise taxes allocated to that state’s game division, we can’t expect wildlife managers to endorse any program that doesn’t include killing wildlife.  Their jobs depend on the amount of hunting and weapon use that can be generated in their state.

The primary tools used by wildlife managers to influence the public are fear and doubt.  These are created through the use of half-truths, linguistic tricks and scientific illusion.  Our DEC waterfowl manager criticized the draft report for not providing information necessary to solve all problems associated with the presence of geese.  This was never the committee’s goal, primarily because it is impossible to achieve by any means.  The technique of criticizing non-lethal humane control methods because they can’t do the impossible (not usually apparent to the casual observer) has been frequently used to build doubt.

The Unanswerable Question – Why Kill Geese?

Our regional waterfowl manager seemed to say of the report: all of this is nice, but there’s a method with 100% effectiveness, and the report overlooked it.  The fact is that no such method exists, either lethal or non-lethal.  That some non-lethal methods might be of limited use is an indefensible excuse to ignore the vast variety of these techniques available.  Especially since the outright killing of geese  (“outright killing” as opposed to egg addling) offers no clear practical or scientific advantage relative to the non-lethal methods and egg addling outlined in the report [egg addling is the egg of destroying egg viability by oiling, freezing or puncturing; a permit is required and addling may only be done by a licensed contractor].  The only realistic goal, in the absence of total habitat alteration, is to attenuate goose-related problems (to acceptable levels) where they cannot be resolved completely.

Population Control – Egg Addling

The committee accepted the use of egg addling as a form of population control even though egg-addling is, by all accounts, a lethal method.  The very intent of this method’s use defines its lethality; egg addling is based on the assumption that many of the addled eggs would hatch to provide viable offspring.  [Since nesting success is regarded as one of the most important factors influencing waterfowl population increases, the reverse must also be true – nesting failure (via addling) is an extremely potent force in population decline].  Interestingly, the opponents of non-lethal methods, namely game managers and cooperative extension representatives, were not satisfied with this form lethality, as they were only interested in the weapon mediated killing of geese.

The Resident Goose Syndrome

Game agencies have created the designation “resident geese” in an attempt to differentiate those birds from the migratory geese whose numbers are decreasing causing hunting seasons to be shortened.  To increase hunting time, wildlife managers said they would shoot “residents only.”  They like to use lack-of-information argument.  The word “resident” used to describe Canada Geese is a euphemism for birds that have escaped the hunting economy by spending more time in the safety of suburbia.  The Committee’s report mentioned that migratory geese could become “resident” geese and vice-versa.  Our waterfowl manager said: “There is no evidence that this has played a significant role in the changing numbers and distribution of geese in the flyway.”  The fact that there is no evidence to support this reasonable possibility in no way constitutes proof that it is not happening or to what extent.  “No evidence” is not equivalent to saying that scientific data does not support this hypothesis.  Jay Hestbeck (US Fish and Wildlife Service), who collects data for the Atlantic Flyway Council, has said on more than one occasion that substantial mixing does occur.

Public Health – Using Fear to Win Support for Killing Geese

Dr. Milton Friend, USFWS, waterfowl infectious disease expert, made a presentation to Rockland County legislators and concerned citizens on the health risk to humans posed by Canada geese.  He said that risk to human health is extremely low.  This information is presented in the Committee’s report.  The illusion of wildlife-based health threats is a wildlife manager’s best fear-inducing tool.  Our waterfowl manager contacted Dr. Friend, whose statement was then changed to: “The possibility of disease transmission from Canada geese to humans cannot be ruled out.”  That appears to be the best that Dr. Friend could do for him.  Fortunately, this does not impact Dr. Friend’s original message.  In fact, language such as “cannot be ruled out” usually means that an extremely small order of magnitude is at issue.

Once again, our wildlife manager is using an imaginary reference point to undermine the common-sense view.   In this case, the idea of zero risk is employed.  Everything can be shown to pose a health risk under the right circumstances: water, lead paint, second-hand smoke, pesticide residues, wobbly chairs, public restrooms, salmonella in poultry and eggs, automobiles, umbrellas, Popsicle sticks and so forth. Societal sanity is preserved because we realize that in some of the above cases, risk is low enough to remove worry from our consciousness.  Goose droppings are clearly in this category.  Concentrations of geese have been high in various places at various times throughout history; it is no mere coincidence, and quite significant that no human illnesses have been linked to such phenomena.  This is the type of information upon which epidemiological conclusions are based.  Nevertheless, all this is moot.  After all, the purpose of the Committee was to describe ways to minimize or eliminate the presence of goose feces in the areas where they are a problem.  The constant rehashing of the public health issue is clearly a desperate attempt to use the illusion of danger to rationalize and win support for the outright killing of geese.

Why Not Feed Geese?

It has long been the opinion of wildlife managers that the feeding of wildlife in general, and waterfowl specifically should be discouraged if not prohibited altogether.  Yet, it is overly simplistic to suggest that regional populations of waterfowl are influenced by children feeding them bread and popcorn.  While geese clearly enjoy these foods, they choose habitats and base their seasonal movement on more biologically relevant criteria (food in the form of grasses (lawns), water, nesting opportunities, etc.).  The anti-feeding philosophy is rooted in one of the primary agendas of the wildlife management establishment, namely, to insure that the general public interacts with wildlife as little as possible.  If the public becomes protective of its local wildlife, there will be a corresponding drop in the acceptance of recreational killing – “sport” hunting.  Thus, the long-term economic survival of agencies like the DEC would be compromised.  State wildlife managers work diligently to keep the public disassociated from wildlife – unless of course, the public wants to pay to kill some.  There is clearly more to “no-feeding” dogma than meets the eye, and it has little to do with nuisance conditions.  Dwelling on this type of feeding is a premeditated distraction that shifts the focus from the most biologically significant form of goose feeding – poorly planned landscaping.

Who Are You Calling Single-Minded?

It has been observed that the wildlife management establishment will not, and cannot be satisfied until the outright killing of wildlife, in this case, geese is on the agenda.  As mentioned, wildlife killing is the economic support of game agencies.  The strategy used to defend their philosophy is virtually the same regardless of species or municipality.  It relies on intensive fear mongering and is centered on weakly supported information about population increases, health threats of imaginary dimensions and suggestive, yet empty statements about cost considerations.

Back in 1993, the DEC acted amazingly uninterested in the specific methods Rockland County would use to handle the goose controversy.  It didn’t take long for he true and unalterable position of the DEC to be revealed.  The County Committee was accused of being stacked, undemocratic and biased because it did not embrace the outright killing of geese.  Contrary to these claims, the task force considered a wide variety of methods useful for alleviating goose problems.  Ironically, precedent indicates that the most intense center of bias actually resides in the game agencies themselves.  They must bear the burden of proof to show otherwise.  When species killed for recreation are involved, non-lethal control methods are not taken seriously.  Was the Committee biased?  To those who consider killing the first and only option, the Committee must surely seem biased.  In fact, 10 distinctly different methods were including: Methyl Anthranilate (M-A), fencing, noise, addling, habitat alteration, balloons, Border Collies, flags, feeding management, and landscaping.

Our waterfowl manager concluded his comments by saying “If non-lethal control methods were intensively implemented in Rockland County, several thousand geese could be displaced to adjacent communities in New York or New Jersey.”  This is a strong endorsement for the potential of non-lethal methods.  Especially considering that in most municipalities at any given time, only a small fraction of all geese are controversial (problem-causing) and only in specific areas.

Final Comments

While there is a natural tendency to tacitly accept the opinions of government experts such as wildlife managers, it is perfectly acceptable to question the basis for an agency’s perspective.  Scientific studies tell society what we are capable of doing, not what we ought to do.  Waterfowl managers use scientific tools to study wildlife.  How the information obtained is used is entirely subjective – vulnerable to abuse by personal bias and political agendas.  Killing wildlife to solve nuisance conditions is not a scientific imperative.  It’s an approach that economically benefits the wildlife management establishment and the weapons industry.  Add to this the fact that most state wildlife managers kill wildlife for recreation, and it is easy to see why non-lethal and humane wildlife control measures usually face strong resistance.

Dr. Gregg Feigelson is an infectious disease chemist.  He is President of the Coalition to Prevent the Destruction of Canada Geese and Executive Director of the Wildlife Action League of America (WALA).  He can be reached at POB 917, Pearl River, NY 10965-0917.


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