THE BLOG
07/15/2010 12:22 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Air Rights -- To Die For?

Federal agents swooped down on Prospect Park last week, removing hundreds of Canada geese and gassing them. The U.S. Department of Agriculture said the culling was necessary to protect air travelers. Others dispute that claim.

The best introduction to the story is an article by Isolde Raftery that began on page A1 of Tuesday's Times and jumped to A22. The apt headline was "400 PARK GEESE DIE, FOR HUMAN FLIERS' SAKE". The story is really well written, and we suggest you click here to read it if you are interested. We appreciate the attention the Times gave to the subject.

A criticism of the story came from the New York City Audubon Society, whose position was described by the Times as "cautiously supportive of the mass euthanizing." In a later statement, the Audubon Society took issue with the Times' description of "NYC Audubon's position on culling resident Canada geese within the five boroughs." They now say:

NYC Audubon believes that lethal control should be the last resort after all other methods for managing bird populations have been exhausted. The blanket approach of lethal control will not significantly reduce the risk birds pose to aviation safety. We maintain that City officials should reduce the amount of lush, green lawn space available throughout the city, which attracts geese. Without such measures, new geese will take up residence here and populations will quickly rebound to current levels. The City may also limit growth of the resident geese population through egg-addling or nest destruction.

NYC Audubon also takes issue with the target population size identified by the Department of Agriculture, which calls for reducing the number of Canada geese in the city by 80 percent. This figure is not supported by sound scientific research. The recent cull at Prospect Park included nearly 100 percent of the geese in that area; essentially, this population was 'managed' into extinction. NYC Audubon strongly disagrees with that decision.

When one species becomes so abundant that it has a negative impact on the habitat and resources of other native bird species - as may be the case with Canada geese - NYC Audubon, like most Audubon chapters, supports population management. But the option of lethal control should be a last resort, undertaken only when bird populations threaten the health, safety, and welfare of other wildlife and humans, and only after a rigorous environmental impact assessment has been done and full disclosure has been made to local citizens and other stakeholders.

Our view of the problem is that important issues have not been answered satisfactorily, and that we lack confidence in the process employed to reach specific decisions on the use of deadly force on animal families.

In fact, Canada geese are often a nuisance in many more ways than causing airplanes to crash, which is very rare. Their droppings litter golf courses and meadows. They eat shoots and small plants, depriving other species of nourishment. They are highly territorial, and hiss and bite when they believe they are intruded upon. Originally migratory birds flying long distances in the spring and fall, many have evolved into permanent residents of local open spaces. They hang around all year instead of flying south in the winter. They can overwhelm ducks, which are smaller waterfowl.

On the other hand, even unpleasant creatures do not deserve the Federal gas chamber to which they have been consigned, in some cases with a degree of arbitrariness. The government's declaration that geese must be killed if they are within seven miles of an airport, considering that Prospect Park is 6.5 miles from both LaGuardia and Kennedy, has the flavor of contrivance. Do the Feds mean to tell us that if the distance had been 7.2 miles, say, the geese and their goslings would have been spared?

The January 2009 collision with Captain Sullenberger's airplane was said to have been caused by migratory geese, not their cousins who amuse Brooklynites at Prospect Park. We think that in cases of capital punishment, the burden of proof is on the executioners. Of course, if human life is actually threatened by the geese, we side with our own species. But we are aware that government programs, once under way, are difficult to limit or restrain, unless there is a powerful lobby representing the other side. In this case, there is no economic interest in the survival of Canada geese, and there is no spokesgoose to represent them.

Another concern is the lack of public discussion on this issue. The searchlight has certainly not reached this government program. We do not recall any opportunity for local input, on either side. It is necessary to protect air travel, but where is the evidence that the indiscriminate slaughter of non-migratory geese is the best way to accomplish that goal? Perhaps the Feds do it because the non-migrants are easier to find and poison. You get better statistics that way.

Part of this outcry is an increasing lack of confidence in the authorities. One need not be a Tea Party ideologue to question the bureaucracy. It would be reassuring to see the science behind the kill. We have heard that the Interior Department originally declined to do the dirty work, so it was shifted to Agriculture, which had no qualms about the work. Perhaps there should be a Federal Bureau of Extermination to organize activities of this nature.

Another suggestion that has been made is that, if this program is to be continued, the geese should be fed to the poor, rather than dumped in a landfill, as was the case with the Prospect Park 400 (or 368, as we have been told). But the policy of providing free or low-cost food might lead to increasing the numbers of poor people, which is not on the Federal agenda.