Northern Colorado scientists have developed birth control for geese, but hunters have another idea for thinning the flocks
Rocky Mountain Chronicle, May 10, 2007
by Joshua Zaffos
Jim Gammonley walks through goose turds at Warren Park in south Fort Collins, approaching an unflappable gaggle of birds that includes a brood of fuzzy goslings. The bird-research program manager for the Colorado Division of Wildlife tags geese in Warren Park and other sites annually to track their whereabouts.
The city parks and public and private golf courses of the northern Front Range are prime real estate for Canada geese. For centuries, the geese migrated up and down the continent, summering in the Great North and retreating south to the warm weather for the winter. Resident populations were generally uncommon.
But those patterns began to change in the early 20th century. Overzealous, unregulated hunters and habitat destruction nearly exterminated the geese. Wildlife biologists responded by reintroducing captive birds to maintain their stocks. The scientists became so good at the practice that states without resident goose populations soon had them.
Colorado began releasing Canada geese in 1957 at College Lake, which butts against the foothills outside Fort Collins. The plaque at the lake commemorates the practice and honors G.I. “Father Goose” Crawford, the Division of Wildlife official credited with restoring Canada geese to Northern Colorado.
This is where Colorado’s – and, to some extent, the country’s – goose problem started. Millions of geese sit around, root through and poop all over America’s golf courses, city parks, town squares and any other suburban refuge of lawn and water. College Lake isn’t even preferred territory anymore.
“By the 1970s, we had been successful enough with our efforts that we began gathering up our goslings for other states,” Gammonley says. But as other states established their own resident goose populations, Colorado ran out of places to export the birds and their annual hatchlings, many of which remained in the mild and maintained environs of suburbia.
On the other side of the lake, at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Wildlife Research Center (NWRC), scientists may have developed a solution to thin out the masses of resident geese that don’t know, or want, to migrate each year.
The federal researchers of the NWRC, along with a private entrepreneur from California, have developed birth control for geese. OvoControl-G prevents goose eggs from hatching. It looks kind of like Corn Pops.
“OvoControl is the first wildlife contraceptive ever, so there’s no roadmap out there,” says Erick Wolf of Innolytics, Inc., which partnered with the NWRC to research and develop the bait/ birth control.
The contraceptive could change the way wildlife managers control pesky suburban bird populations, like flocks of pigeons and geese. Its acceptance could also lead to similar control for herds of deer and other animals that are running amok in comfy, suburban and exurban spaces,once their natural habitat. But some hunters and outfitters fear birdie birth control will lead to less birds to shoot, and state wildlife agencies, dependent on hunting license revenues, will have to weigh in on the matter, and possibly figure out how to control that other form of not-so-wild life: humans.
The Front Range’s human population began exploding around the same time as the goose population. New neighborhoods — and parks, open spaces and golf courses — make cozy goose habitat. Children and seniors feed birds. Today, about 15,000 Canada geese reside year-round along the Front Range between Fort Collins and Pueblo.
Nationally, the numbers are even more staggering: Five million geese call the U.S. home, but only 2 million migrate across the continent.
Another astounding number: A goose excretes 1.5 pounds of feces a day, increasing human health risks of E. coli and Listeria.
Colorado has long since stopped reintroducing Canada geese. As in most states, goose management is now a combination of hunting and harassment, with the latter being preferred in and around cities for safety and humanitarian reasons.
During the spring breeding season, biologists will addle, or shake, eggs to detach the yolk from the membrane wall and keep them from hatching. Some wildlife managers will also puncture shells. In Colorado, the weapon of choice is a corn- oil spray that suffocates the shell pores and, again, prevents hatching. (Breaking or crushing eggs isn’t all that practical because geese will simply lay a new batch.) But none of these measures really do anything to alter goose behavior.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regulates all management activities because Canada geese are classified as migratory birds, regardless of whether a population actually flies south for the winter. The Colorado Division of Wildlife holds a special permit from the federal agency to oil eggs. The state then registers and trains homeowners associations, golf course superintendents and parks staff.
Since the state received its permit in 2001, 44 separate entities, mostly around metro Denver, have registered to “treat” eggs or destroy nests. Last year, three permittees signed up in Larimer County and, according to Division of Wildlife stats, destroyed 27 nests and 77 eggs. Across Colorado, trained managers destroyed 442 nests and 2,555 eggs.
Dozens of other hazing measures do not require a permit. They recall a string of plot devices from Road Runner cartoons and are seemingly as successful.
“We have a guy that goes out every morning and chases away the geese that have flown in overnight,” says Scott Robbins, superintendent for Ptarmigan Golf Course, located between Fort Collins and Windsor off Highway 392. The course has received a state permit to oil eggs, but the greens crew uses hazing tactics more frequently.
Robbins bought a remote-control boat to chase off geese on the course’s lake. His staff uses flash tape that reflects into the sky to discourage birds from landing, as well as scare balloons, inflated balls with bull’s eyes that are supposed to look like a predator’s steely pupils. “It kind of works on the migratory geese, but the resident ones, they’ve seen everything,” Robbins says. “The geese will not even generally move for a golf cart.”
At Fort Collins’ city golf courses, manager Jerry P. Brown has tried scaring off resident birds using everything from inflatable alligators to goose carcasses. Dogs, which will chase geese but won’t kill them, are his “best weapon of harassment,” and the city courses also have state permits to oil eggs. (Depending on a city’s laws, some parks or golf courses fire blank cracker shells to frighten the geese into moving elsewhere.)
“We do it simply because geese are a big nuisance to our customers and to us,” Brown says, “and they’re a nuisance because of the pooping. A golf course is a smorgasbord to a goose.”
The kibble contraceptive
Neither Robbins nor Brown keep track of how much time and labor are spent fighting back the geese that stick around all year, but both say that if the gaggles grow, birth control is worth consideration.
“You’re basically swapping technology for labor,” says Wolf, of his product’s benefits.
Unlike Bill Murray’s gopher-hating character in Caddyshack, all a golf-course superintendent would need to take care of his winged annoyances is a pan of OvoControl, served every morning over the two-month breeding season.
“After about two days, the geese are standing in the parking space,” waiting for the bait, Wolf says. “It looks like dog-food kibbles and it tastes like bread.” He speaks from firsthand experience, having sampled the semi-soft morsels himself during the testing phases.
OvoControl doesn’t prevent birds from laying eggs, but it greatly reduces egg hatchability by breaking down the wall between the membrane and the yolk. The active ingredient is nicarbazin, a compound developed by Merck & Co. about 50 years ago to stave off a parasite disease in chickens.
“This is one of the compounds that provided the poultry industry the means to grow chicken at a large scale,” Wolf says.
Roughly a decade ago, Wolf was working for a company that was manufacturing for Merck when he realized nicarbazin prevented some chicken eggs from hatching. His boss saw the realization as an opportunity, and Wolf began studying how the compound could be used to produce the same result with resident geese. Soon his quest led him to contact the staff at the National Wildlife Research Center in Fort Collins.
Bait and glitch
The NWRC serves as the research arm for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and its Wildlife Services branch (formerly known as Animal Damage Control).
For many decades, the department dealt with varmints and problem animals by killing them as efficiently as possible. But as environmental values have changed, so has the mindset of wildlife managers. Today, NWRC scientists spend lots of time working on humane control solutions for prairie dogs, wolves and coyotes, as well as aggressive strategies for knocking back exotic species, like feral pigs, Gambian rats, nutria and brown tree snakes, which prey upon or displace native animals.
The center was experimenting with its own contraceptive when Wolf approached them, says NWRC Product Development Research Manager Kathleen Fagerstone.
As many as 15 NWRC biologists, chemists and other researchers teamed with Wolf starting in 1998. A first round of tests on Japanese quail showed the contraceptive was working.
In 2000, Congress allocated $2 million over four years for the NWRC to continue its experiments. NWRC scientists knew how nicarbazin worked, so the major challenge was tinkering for the proper dosage, then making the bait palatable.
“We went through several years of just trying to get the geese to eat it,” Fagerstone says.
The center kept geese in feeding pens on its campus, and the scientists finally mixed a wheat-based recipe that the birds wanted to gobble. Next, they had to figure out if the dosage was right, since geese won’t lay eggs in captivity.
After years of research, OvoControl was ready for a battery of tests by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The bureau studied the bait’s toxicity, how it breaks down in the environment and its potential consequences on other birds and wildlife, before approving it in late 2005. (OvoControl could affect other birds’ hatchability, although songbirds don’t breed at the same time as geese.)
“This is the first contraceptive that EPA has registered — for anything,” Fagerstone says. “It has been a learning experience for researchers and regulators, and now it will be one for the managers.”
Hunters fire back
The Humane Society and PETA have praised the animal-friendly breakthrough of OvoControl. The product also has a thumbs-up from the American Bird Conservancy, a national nonprofit group that advocates to protect threatened and endangered bird species. Michael Fry, the group’s pesticides and birds director, says he had some initial concerns over potential birth deformities from OvoControl to those goslings that do hatch, but he is satisfied with the testing.
Despite the endorsements, only eleven sites in three states — Oregon, Rhode Island and California — are trailblazing into the realm of birth control for geese. They include a U.S. Navy military installation, several golf courses, and private homeowners associations and municipal lands.
Because OvoControl is the first product of its kind, the federal government is overseeing its use in the same way as lethal measures. States are patching together rules to allow — or reject — its application.
City parks districts and a condo development in Illinois also approached Wolf to set up treatment sites, but he says those got tossed after the state Department of Natural Resources ruled that use of OvoControl, as a chemical, is illegal. The contraceptive was classified with poisons and explosives. The motivation wasn’t scientific, Wolf claims, but the result of pressure from hunting groups, which contribute a big chunk to the Department of Natural Resources’ budget through the purchase of hunting licenses.
“The way they view this thing is, if you contracept a goose, that’s one less goose to kill,” Wolf says. “Our take is that resident geese are rarely shot.”
Wolf says he’s encountered resistance from fish and game agencies and hunters in other states, too. Since no one has formally applied to use OvoControl in Colorado, Wolf isn’t sure how the state and local hunters will respond. Boulder County Parks and LongmontParks both made initial inquiries about using the contraceptive, but Wolf says they started looking too late in the season to receive treatments. Brown, the Fort Collins Manager of Golf, says he would “absolutely” try out OvoControl, but isn’t familiar with the product.
“There’s no reason for us not to permit it,” says Gammonley of the state’s wildlife division. “If we’re going to start using OvoControl, in some ways, it’s probably less controversial.”
The birth control is undoubtedly less controversial to city- park birdwatchers and animal-rights types, who are against destroying eggs and nests and harassing geese. But the hunting community’s reaction isn’t clear, and bird hunters in Colorado have clout with the Division of Wildlife.
Based on division estimates, Colorado has sold an annual average of 15,843 licenses to goose hunters since 1999. Goose hunters spend about $1 million a year in license fees that go directly to the state Division of Wildlife. That doesn’t include guide services, gun and ammo purchases, hotels, food and orange vests.
“Goose hunting is really good in Colorado,” Gammonley says. “This is an important resource for the state. And, believe it or not, a good number of these [resident] geese do wander to ag fields and get shot.”
Through his banding efforts along the Front Range, Gammonley can track when a hunter kills a resident goose on the Eastern Plains. Along the northern Front Range, of every five Canada geese chomping and honking and pooping along a Loveland golf course or a Fort Collins bike trail, one is eventually pumped full of buckshot.
Most of those birds are shot during a short, early hunting season, which usually lasts one to two weeks in October.
Jim Roth, co-owner of Greeley- based Waterfowl Haven Outfitters, isn’t familiar with OvoControl, but he worries that it could hurt his business, which serves about 900 hunters a year — many from out of state — at $200 a pop.
“I don’t think you have any idea of what would happen” to population numbers, he says. “I’d be against it. All they have to do is lengthen the season if they wanted to get [kill] more birds.”
Tad Stout is a goose-hunting guide in Severance, and he calls the early season “an integral part of our business.” But he isn’t worried about OvoControl ruining his livelihood.
“It’s not a concern at all,” says Stout, who graduated from Colorado State University with a fisheries and biology degree and first started guiding with his father, known as “Mister Goose” (notto be confused with “Father Goose” Crawford at College Lake).
“My skepticism is [over] the effectiveness,” Stout adds. “It would take a pretty aggressive, pretty extensive program to put a dent in Canada geese, and we’ve created pretty good habitat for them.”
Habitat for humanity
Wolf is now waiting for EPA registration of a new form of OvoControl aimed at pigeons. With no hunting constituency for the urban pests, he expects less opposition and hopes that acceptance of pigeon contraceptives could wear down resistance to the goose control.
In the meantime, Northern Coloradans continue to create “pretty good habitat” for resident geese. With thousands of new homes to be constructed and dozens of new golf courses and malls to follow, developers typically won’t pay much attention to how their water features or landscaping might attract birds, Gammonley says. But they want a quick fix when goose poop is littering the fairway on the fourteenth hole.
Gammonley and other wildlife managers know there is no silver bullet or bait or radio-controlled boat that will override or eliminate the habits of resident geese. The same axiom holds for educating people and informing our land use as we convert farms, wetlands and rural stopovers for migratory geese into subdivisions, office parks and suburban sanctuaries for resident geese. Which ever-growing group of residents will be easier to train to take the bait?
“That’s kind of the problem,” Gammonley says. “People and geese like the same things.”