DENVER (CN) – If you build it, they will come. Unfortunately for potential picnic-goers, Denver’s lush parks and predator-free ponds are the perfect habitat for Branta Canadensis – the Canada goose – to thrive.
The city and county of Denver hired the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s wildlife service to cull 2,200 fowl during their narrow molting season, including 1,662 birds from city parks. The birds were taken off-site, euthanized, and will be served to needy families in the community.
The plan was approved by Mayor Michael Hancock in October 2018 and is expected to cost the city $149,722.
In the days following the harvest of Denver’s geese, a stark silence fell across Washington Park, applauded by some and lamented by others.
“At the beginning of the summer, there used to be a whole bunch lying over there,” said Izzi M., a teenager who is working at the boat rental stand for the summer. “Now when I open there’s only like two. They took out too many, it’s crazy. I miss them, they used to honk at me when I would bring in the bikes and they’re fun to honk back at.”
Since 2002, Denver has oiled thousands of goose eggs annually with corn oil to prevent them from hatching. Park staff also employ two noisy remote-controlled machines dubbed “Goosinators” to harass birds away.
Unregulated hunting drove the population down to 155 breeding pairs in the 1950s. Now Colorado Parks and Wildlife Survey estimated the Front Range is home to more than 44,000 breeding pairs, each of which lay an average of five eggs every year.
“Canada geese are beautiful waterfowl and their resurgence is a conservation success story,” said USDA public affairs specialist Tanya Espinosa via email. “The resident population in this area is too large, which can cause many problems including overgrazing of grass, ornamental plants and agricultural crops, (and) accumulation of droppings and feathers.”
The average Canada goose leaves behind a pound of feces a day. People who commend the city’s culling worry about algae blooms and diseases like salmonella, cryptosporidium, and E. coli which thrive in goose poop.
Don Oviatt, who was walking a yellow lab named Rudy around Washington Park, held up a plastic bag-carrier shaped like a dog bone.
“See this, I pick up his leavings,” Oviatt said. “I don’t leave them around, because that would be as bad (as the geese). Also we have them neutered so they aren’t reproducing unchecked like the geese are.”
To protect meat processers from harassment, the city declined to give details on where and how the birds are being served. The Colorado Inspection & Consumer Services Division does not distinguish between meat types in its licensing records, and said the facility was likely to have been licensed as a custom-exempt wild game processor which would turn the poultry into table cuts.
There are no USDA-licensed poultry facilities in the state of Colorado. Wild game cannot be sold.
A number of nonprofit organizations distribute food to needy families statewide, including Food Bank of the Rockies which distributed 70 million pounds of food to 430,000 families last year.
While Food Bank of the Rockies did not receive a goose meat donation, they have distributed game in the past. Most of the organization’s food comes from grocery rescues or is donated by local farmers.
Still, the geese occupy a strange place between the familiar animals that are taboo to serve at the table and wild animals that are fenced out of backyards.
“I wouldn’t eat it, I wouldn’t even try it,” said Chris Brown as he was catch-and-release fishing in the pond. “I don’t think that’s humane.”
Canada geese of course aren’t just a problem in Denver – and urban dwellers’ relationship to geese raises questions of their relationship with nature itself.
“With a song like a dying balloon and a penchant for attacking humans, the Canada goose is hard to love. But then again, so are most of us,” lamented bestselling author John Green in an episode of his podcast the Anthropocene Reviewed.
“For better or worse, land has become ours,” Green continued. “It is ours to cultivate, to shape, even ours to protect. We are so much the dominant creature on this planet that we essentially decide which species live and which die, which grow like the Canada goose and which decline like its cousin the spoon-billed sandpiper.”
University of Denver law professor and animal advocate Justin Marceau said he intends to take this case into the classroom.
“You create a manmade area with grass that is mowed and watered and manmade lakes, you have to expect that all kinds of avian species are going to be attracted to it,” Marceau said. “This is what happens and so then you have to come up with creative ways to deter them from wanting to stay there.”
The city will reassess the goose population in 2020 to see if the culling was effective and whether it will do it again.