Resident Canada geese are becoming a nuisance at Silver Lake

Whatcom County hoping to find 'humane, non-lethal' solution

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMay 4, 2013 

SILVERLAKEGEESE

Canada geese walk around the grassy lawn next to the public beach Tuesday afternoon, April 30, 2013 at Silver Lake Park north of Maple Falls.

COLIN DILTZ — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD Buy Photo

MAPLE FALLS - A growing flock of resident Canada geese are creating a problem at Silver Lake Park, where their feces pockmark places that visitors also like to congregate - the children's playground, grassy picnic area and swimming beach.

"It's gotten progressively worse as the flock has gotten bigger," said Mike McFarlane, director of Whatcom County Parks and Recreation Department, adding that the feces have generated complaints from visitors and raised concerns about public health at the county park near Maple Falls.

McFarlane wants to reduce the number of resident geese, which he said could number as many as 80, to an acceptable level, stressing that he doesn't want all the geese removed.

That has created concerns from some that the county plans to kill the birds, even as opponents acknowledge that the amount of goose droppings is an issue.

An adult goose can produce 1 to 3 pounds of droppings a day.

"There's no doubt the geese are a problem in terms of the feces," said Wendy Harris, a Silver Beach resident in Bellingham who is raising concerns. "It's inconvenient. It's ugly. It's disgusting. It hinders people's enjoyment. But is it dangerous?"

Harris believes the county is overstating health concerns related to the droppings, as well as public complaints. She wants greater study on managing the geese, including the crafting of a wildlife management plan for Whatcom County.

Silver Lake isn't the only place where resident Canada geese pose problems.

They were originally introduced into Western Washington to bolster declining migratory goose populations. Over time, the population of resident geese jumped, especially in urban areas where there are few predators, a dependable supply of food year-round, and prohibitions on hunting.

Hunting isn't allowed at Silver Lake. Signs have gone up asking people to stop feeding the geese. Resident geese are those that don't migrate; they stay in a place year-round.

Canada geese like mowed lawns around homes, golf courses, parks, and similar spots next to open water - the same places that people like.

"Everyone likes to see them. Having geese around is great, but when you have too many it's really the droppings that create the problems and the nuisance," McFarlane said, adding that their feces contribute to swimmer's itch among people who use Silver Lake.

He also raised concerns about fecal coliform, although the county's Health Department hasn't tested the water quality at Silver Lake.

The birds are protected under federal law, so the county can't do anything itself. Officials have contacted the U.S. Department of Agriculture and its Wildlife Services Program, which will conduct a survey in June to assess the situation and then return with recommendations.

Those recommendations could include a non-lethal approach such as erecting barriers, or lethal ones such as killing the adults or spraying vegetable oil on their eggs, said Ken Gruver, assistant state director for the Washington/Alaska Wildlife Services Program through the USDA.

But, ultimately, the landowner - in this case the county - will decide what to do, Gruver said.

County officials said they haven't made a decision, although they noted that an alternative of using a repellant would cost as much as $40,000 a year.

"It's premature to make any speculation about what the county would do," said Erik Axelson, operations manager for Whatcom County Parks and Recreation.

Meanwhile, McFarlane and Axelson note that the county is working with the Whatcom Humane Society on a new effort to encourage the geese to go elsewhere in the park.

Silver Lake is about 412 acres. The areas of conflict are about 4 to 5 acres, the places most heavily used by the public for picnicking, boating, swimming, and the children's playground, which the county plans to replace later this summer at a cost of $130,000.

In that effort, the county humane society is putting together a volunteer list of herding dogs and their owners to visit the park daily to discourage the geese from congregating where they do now.

"We are at this point committed to working the herding dog program. Our main concern is the public health, safety and appearance of Silver Lake Park," Axelson said, stressing that the herding effort doesn't involve harassing the geese.

"We're not blood thirsty, running out trying to kill all the geese," he added. "We're sincerely trying to find alternatives here."

The Whatcom Humane Society and the Humane Society of the United States both oppose killing nuisance geese.

"This solution is not only inhumane, but costly," said Laura Clark, executive director of Whatcom Humane Society. "In addition, the removal of the current flock of resident geese from Silver Lake will just allow room for another flock to move in."

Of the dog patrols, Clark said: "Our hope is that this humane, non-lethal method will be effective in keeping the geese from causing any further issues to park visitors or damage to park property,"

Meanwhile, county officials said they want to make sure that geese pushed from one part of the park don't end up in the yards of nearby residences.

Reach Kie Relyea at 360-715-2234 or kie.relyea@bellinghamherald.com.

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