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Volume 1, Issue 2 - June, 1999

Canada geese vs suburbia: the case for
adaptable environmental policy


By Richard E. Warner and Phil C. Mankin

In the last issue of IEPR, Mahomet Mayor Jeff Courson posed the question, “What are the ways in which municipalities can control the resident/nonmigratory Canada Goose population around storm water runoff areas, and remain in compliance with local, state, and federal water quality and retention regulations, as well as federal migratory waterfowl regulations?”

The Giant Canada Goose (Branata canadensis maxima), now commonly associated with Midwest ponds and lakes, was once thought to be eliminated in North America, due to loss of wetland habitat, unrestricted egg taking, and overhunting. Small numbers of the race were rediscovered a few decades ago, after which wildlife agencies began to carefully protect and promote their resurgence throughout North America. In less than 40 years, their numbers have increased from a few thousand to well over a million.

Once a “crown jewel” of wildlife conservation policy, the Giant Canada Goose population now is widely viewed as out of control with no good solution in sight. Geese have adapted well to human settings, thriving year-round near the smallest of urban ponds. Their flocks bring an abundance of feathers, droppings, noise, and landscape damage. In high densities, geese also can transmit diseases to other animals, and via droppings contribute to eutrophication (nutrient enrichment) of ponds and lakes, resulting in aquatic population imbalances. Further, the hazards to aircraft are of increasing concern, especially in Illinois.

In this age of highly trained wildlife professionals and informed environmental policy making, how can a situation such as this reach a point of distress for homeowners, municipalities, and state and federal agencies, alike?

Wildlife’s behavioral adaptations to human environments are difficult to anticipate over the long term. Mitigating the geese’s natural habitat loss for aesthetic and legal reasons was not imagined a few decades ago. Ironically, most suburbs that established ponds also established strong measures like leash laws to minimize the free-ranging of domestic animals that may have helped curb geese populations. Also, it is difficult to persuade homeowners who paid premiums for water views to accept ponds with fencing, though this might make ponds less attractive as goose habitats.

Why not dramatically increase the effects of humans as predators of nuisance geese by relaxing wildlife policies? Municipal areas, in partnership with state and federal agencies, are experimenting with means to control geese numbers. These include more liberal hunting in regions where geese have proliferated, experimental removal of nests, and preventing hatching via egg shaking. However, public opinion is divided on egg removal and otherwise killing geese as an appropriate control.

The ultimate lesson of the Canada Goose dilemma is that environmental policies must be no less adaptable than the species they concern. Perhaps policies relevant to the goose problem will change in years to come. However, it is unlikely that the creation of small ponds will be discouraged because of geese. After all, the central problem is vastly more Canada Geese continent-wide, not just in urban settings.

Problems of this nature have both regional and local implications, requir-ing solution efforts coordinated by federal, state, and municipal entities. For more information on geese control measures and alternatives to retention ponds, click here.

Associate professor Richard E. Warner and wildlife ecologist Phil C. Mankin are members of the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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Other Articles in Volume 1, Issue 2 - March, 1999:
Is it time to regulate agricultural fertilizers?
Creating partnership for environmental policy making

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