Canada geese take a bite out of farm profits

Posted: February 24, 2014

Farmers call them "flying rats" or "deer with wings."

They gather by the tens of thousands every year about this time to graze on sprouting winter wheat, rye, alfalfa, and barley.

They're voracious, persistent, and dirty, leaving behind a trail of droppings.

Canada geese.

"You see a couple, then 10, 50, 100, 300," said farmer Ray Hlubik, 61, of Chesterfield, Burlington County. Soon, like a scene from Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, "they cover a whole field.

"They decimated my alfalfa last year," Hlubik said. And in the early spring, "they pulled the tops off my sweet corn."

The foul problems in New Jersey and Pennsylvania cost farmers hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in lost produce and force the replanting of geese-ravaged fields.

Some growers use propane cannons during the day to fire periodic blasts to scare the birds. Others deploy balloons, dogs, stationary dog silhouettes, even avian lasers in low-light conditions to drive them off.

But increasingly, many across the agriculture industry are looking for a more permanent solution: stepped-up hunting to thin the flocks.

Federal and state permits allow farmers and licensed hunters to shoot the birds under strict guidelines governing when and how many geese per day can be killed. Growers also have to prove their crops have been damaged.

Some are now building a case - with photos and reports - to share with state agriculture and wildlife officials in the hope that it can be used to solicit help from Congress.

"If you knock down the resident [geese] population, that would lessen the problem," said Ed Wengryn, a research associate at the New Jersey Farm Bureau, a nonprofit advocacy group representing more than 11,000 farmers and other ancillary businesses in the state. "They eat you out of house and home all year long.

"Controlled hunting is really all you can do," he said. "The damage they cause can be pretty severe, and it's worse when the migratory geese come through, swelling the population."

Pennsylvania and New Jersey are in the Atlantic Flyway, the migratory path taken by Canada geese when heading north or south.

About 80,000 stop in the Garden State in February and March as they head north, matching a similar number of resident Canada geese - just as temperatures warm up and the snow begins to melt, revealing green sprouts below.

The number of migrant and resident geese is even higher in Pennsylvania, though up-to-date statistics were unavailable.

Hunting "is an important part of control," said Jeff Grove, director of local government affairs for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, which represents more than 58,000 farmers and associate members. "The number of geese and depth of the problem is great."

To the public, these birds "are a nuisance; to farmers, they cut into livelihoods and profit margins," said Mark O'Neill, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau.

In New Jersey, reports and photos of the damage are being collected by farmer Bob Puskas, a member of the Fish and Game Council, part of the state Department of Environmental Protection. His 1,000-acre Middlebush Farms in Somerset, has had its own share of problems.

"The geese devastated 35 acres of corn last May," Puskas said. "There is a marked yield decrease.

"They'll take a green field in a matter of days and make it look like you didn't plant anything at all," he said. "There are hundreds and hundreds of them and they go from field to field."

Puskas plans to share reports of farmers' damage with the Fish and Game Council at its next meeting on March 11. The geese "are deer with wings," he said. "We need to liberalize the hunting season. Some people say the more shooting the better, but the federal government has to approve that."

A broader study of the damage could be used to persuade Congress to provide funding to develop strategies that could reduce the goose population, farmers said.

"It's an extremely serious problem," said Ray Samulis, an agent of the Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Burlington County. "To the farmers, [the geese] are vermin."

The resident birds were originally introduced to parts of the United States decades ago as captive flocks, said Kim Clapper, wildlife biologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services. Many were later released or escaped, then began nesting.

"There are options to managing the geese," Clapper said. "Our agency promotes an integrated approach; no one method will alleviate the problem.

"We suggest people harass the geese as long as there's no intent to kill - using dogs, avian lasers, propane cannons, any kind of noise," she said. "If you use dog silhouettes, you want to move them around or put them on a swivel to make them seem like they're a threat."

Permits also can be obtained from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and state wildlife agencies to shoot geese within certain bag limits and calendar guidelines.

Resident birds are hunted in September, a month before migrants arrive during their southward trek.

Migratory geese are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and many remain in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, especially in the southern parts, from October through March.

Year-round depredation permits are available when farmers can demonstrate that geese are damaging property and other nonlethal measures have been unsuccessful. Licensed hunters must still abide by hunting seasons and regulations.

"Farmers certainly are suffering damage," said Ted Nichols, a biologist for the New Jersey DEP. "It tends to be more severe this time of year.

"There's not a lot of food" for the geese, he said, "and the early green growth is rich in nitrogen."

In the end, there's no easy solution, said Chesterfield farmer Ray Hlubik. "I've tried scaring them, but you stand there wasting time when there's a lot of work to do in the spring. They'll leave, then come back."

He and other farmers say their "goose is cooked" if they can't manage the problem. "The only thing to do is hunt them more aggressively," Hlubik said.

For more information, contact U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services at 866-487-3297.

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