Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Goose Truth

With help from a number of witnesses and readers, including a Wall Street lawyer who lives at Tiger Point, we've finally managed to pin down the gory goose truth about los desaparecidos.

Rumors have been swirling at Tiger Point Golf & Country Club for over a week after a dozen or more residents witnessed the abduction by parties unknown of a gaggle of Canadian geese who inhabited the East Course.

Murder Most Fowl?

Were the geese killed? Even eaten? Or, were they simply "removed and relocated" as some Tiger Point managers have been telling their angry members?

Was it "wrong, wrong, wrong," as one reader commented here earlier this week? Or, was the "taking" of annoying waterfowl from a semi-public golf course in Gulf Breeze an ecologically responsible action that has been badly misunderstood by emotional or misinformed residents?

Some claim that in the gathering darkness last Wednesday evening as many as a hundred birds were lured by a food trail laced with drugs into a fenced temporary corral near the fifteenth green and then trucked away. Others say they saw several men, identity unknown, trap and remove ducks as well as geese. At least one witness said she saw a recalcitrant goose killed on the spot when it tried to make its escape.

No one has been sure about the facts or the fate of the birds. Club management told concerned residents they were "removed and relocated." Skeptics asked, "To where? "

No one offered a convincing answer.


Others asked, "Removed by whom?" Neither club management nor state game and fish officials contacted by outraged residents could -- or would -- say. Even a few residents, as it turns out, were complicit in the widespread obfuscation. One husband we know actually told his wife the geese were taken to "an animal refuge." Later, when we were alone, we asked him where that refuge might be.

"Goose Heaven," he said somewhat sheepishly. The husband explained that his wife was so upset he didn't want to tell her what he really thinks happened to them.

More than one state official told us the only way to know for sure the fowls' fate was to track down every licensed trapper in Northwest Florida and ask him if he had anything to do with it and, if so, what happened to the birds. That, of course, would have been a fool's errand. It's difficult not to believe this was advice calculated to take citizens so long to complete that public anger might exhaust itself in the meantime.

Using more direct methods, we and a couple of our correspondents were able to track down the answers from an authoritative source: the very government official who approved and undertook the action. We've reviewed the permits he provided and sorted through the evidence.

The truth can now be revealed.

The Great Goose-capade

"Fifty-two Canada geese were taken," John Dunlap, district supervisor of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture's Wildlife Services office in Gainsville, told us. Dunlap describes himself as a biologist who earned a bachelor's degree in 1999 from a Tennessee university.

"We made sure that only resident Canada geese were removed, " he said. "No ducks or other waterfowl were taken."

He explained that the action was necessary because the birds "were causing problems." They were "resident" geese, he said, who "no longer will migrate north."

That's a complaint we've heard before, from both golf course personnel and State Fish and Game officials. Those who make it seem unaware (or unwilling to admit) that the Canada geese in Santa Rosa County are descendants of a species-population experiment to seed the state with native Canadian geese which was initiated by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in the late 1960's and early 1970's:
In 1967 and 1968 868 Canada Geese of the subspecies maxima (called moffitti by Palmer [1976]) were released in the Tallahassee area by the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission [editor: now Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission]. In 1974 160 birds were released in northwestern Florida and 76 in the central peninsula south to Lake County. According to Spillan (1978 in Stevenson and Anderson 1994), a total of 1,450 nonmigratory Canada Geese were released in Florida, mostly in Jackson, Leon, Wakulla, Jefferson, Alachua, and Duval counties.

By 1987 they had established breeding populations in Santa Rosa County, Tallahassee, Jacksonville, Gainesville, Ocala, and Daytona Beach (J. McDaniel, pers. commun. in Stevenson and Anderson 1994). Atlas records in counties south of these locations were established for Manatee in 1986, Seminole in 1987, Pasco in 1988, and Dade in 1991. Although some of these records refer to birds recently released (B. Loftin, VRF 1987; L. McCullagh, VRF 1990), most birds are probably the offspring of those released in the 1970s and are extending their breeding range southward.
[emphasis added]
Like many golf courses in Florida, Dunlap says, Tiger Point has "highly fertilized grass. The geese feed on the grass seed and leave feces on the greens. Management tried to clean it off every day, but the problem just got worse and worse."

Dunlap's description of the annoyances the Canada geese can cause is closely matched by descriptions one can find all over the Internet. For example the University of Michigan's Zoology Museum states in part:
Canada geese can become a nuisance, especially when normally migratory birds become resident. They can overgraze lawns and crops, leading to erosion. On lawns, their feces can annoy humans. Build-up of fecal matter can lead to reduced water quality, by fostering bacteria and adding much nitrogen and phosphorus. Canada geese can be an exceptional annoyance in Atlantic flyway states by crowding in on golf courses, beaches, parks, playing fields, and yards.
For another example, a Wikipedia entry states:
Through different areas of North America, non-migratory Canada Goose populations have been on the increase. They frequent golf courses, parking lots and urban parks, which would have previously hosted only migratory geese on rare occasions. Their adaptability to human-altered areas has made this the most common waterfowlNorth America. In many areas, these non-migratory Canada Geese are now regarded as "pests". They are suspected of being a cause of an increase in high fecal coliforms at beaches. An extended hunting season and the use of noise makers have been used in an attempt to disrupt suspect flocks over the course of several years.
Asked what, if any, steps short of "taking" the birds were tried, as is required by federal regulations, Dunlap was less convincing. He told us he was first contacted last year by Meadowbrook Golf company officials, who own the Tiger Point Golf & Country Club. "I think they tried a spray and used dogs," he said somewhat tentatively.

The "spray" may have been Methiocarb. The University of Michigan describes it, somewhat ominously, as a pesticide "the toxic effects" of which "are still being researched."

No one we know can attest to any use of "dogs" by course management to reduce the population of Canada geese who have been breeding on the Tiger Point golf course for the past decade or more. As far as that goes, someone is trying to pull the fur over our eyes.

"Standing" Permit

Eventually, golf course officials "contracted" with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to have the birds "taken," as Dunlap delicately puts it. Acting under what he termed a "standing permit to take Canada geese in the State of Florida," Dunlap organized and oversaw last Wednesday's event. He emphasized that the permit was issued in compliance with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 and a dozen or more other international conventions and federal statutes.

The particular standing permit in this instance is designated "Permit No. WX04137A." It was issued on June 15, 2004 "by the State of Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission" to "Bernice Constanine" [sic -- the correct spelling is Constantin]. Constantin is director of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service - Wildlife Service office. The permit expires the last day of this year.

Essentially, that permit authorizes Constantin's office "to take and possess mallard ducks and Canada geese in Florida" subject to several conditions which can be summarized easily:
  • "Canada Geese, nests, and eggs may be taken between March 1 and September 30 when such taking is also federally permitted or authorized. Taking should be done discreetly and in such a manner as to avoid conflicts with the public, and in adherence with Florida Statute 828.12 regarding animal cruelty."
  • Permission to enter private property must first be secured from the owner.
  • The federal authorities also must issue a permit and both state and federal permits "must be readily available for inspection at all times while engaging in the permitted activities... ."
  • When "other qualified personnel" assist in the "permitted work," there must be a USDA authorization letter provided to the property owner and "other personnel" engaged in the "taking;" and
  • "A detailed report of all activities engaged in pursuant to this permit must be submitted with 90 days subsequent to the permit expiration ... ."
What Really Happened to the Geese?

In the permit itself, and in multiple conversations with Florida state fish and game officials who surely knew more than they were admitting, and throughout Mr. Dunlap's narrative as well, the euphemistic word "taking" was used repeatedly to describe the fate of the Tiger Point geese. Like the husband we mentioned above, it's as if they were unable to bring themselves to utter the truth for fear we couldn't handle it.

When we realized that after almost twenty minutes of conversation with Mr. Dunlap he still hadn't told us what happened to the geese after they were "taken," we asked him point-blank, "What do you mean 'taken'? Were they relocated or killed?"

After a short pause, Dunlap adopted the reticent tone of a funeral director and said unctuously, "They were euthanized."

"It's okay," we assured him. "We can take it. You mean they were killed?"

"Yes. I'm afraid so."

Lessons Learned

Probably there are some lessons to be learned from all of this. We hope one of them has been learned by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission: be more careful when you mess with Mother Nature. It doesn't make much sense to import Canada geese to North Florida and encourage them to breed, then start killing them off by the scores because they "no longer are migrating birds."

For another, it shouldn't have taken a full-bore investigation by several private citizens to find out what their government really is doing in our own neighborhood. It's impossible to avoid the conclusion that State game and fish personnel, as well as Tiger Point management, deliberately hid the truth from residents. Government, especially, should make its actions transparent to the people it serves, even at the risk of offending their sensibilities. We're all adults, for goodness' sake. We ought to be able to take the truth.

Public Education

Indeed, we need to know the truth about the world around us, even when it comes to the little things such as cute Canadian geese waddling across the fairways in front of their golf course homes. As an oft-cited "draft" research paper by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection on the problem of "Management of Canadian Geese in Suburban Areas" states [pdf format]:
Public attitudes toward geese often conflict, juxtaposing environmental needs with personal belief systems regarding wildlife protection and welfare. Suburban areas contain increased populations, and different groups will define ‘nuisance’ from geese differently. * * * Any method [of wildlife management] that involves destruction of birds, eggs, or nests will often create a highly emotionally charged atmosphere. * * * Usually, the first step in reducing these types of conflicts is education.
Both Tiger Point and, sad to say, the Government of Florida hasn't been forthright or candid with Gulf Breeze residents and users of the Tiger Point golf course. By contrast, John Dunlap deserves praise for 'fessing up. (You can email him here.)

Next time, if there is one, all could learn from this experience: join the Reality Community. Educate the public about your intentions and the reasons behind them. Enlist golf club members to serve on a "citizen task force," as the New Jersey paper recommends. Prominently post the permit under which you propose to act.

Above all, treat citizens like rational, intelligent adults -- not mere children to be manipulated with magical thinking, superstition, false assurances, and fantasies about "goose heaven." In big things as well as little ones like this goose caper, stop the assault on reason and, as Al Gore puts it, "trust in the wisdom of a well-informed citizenry."


BeachLover said...

Excellent detective work. Someone missed his calling, I do believe: "Beach Blogger, Private Eye" . Sounds pretty good to me.

But say, the only thing missing in this story now is the answer to a question even the writer may've been avoiding:

Euthanized how?

Anonymous said...

we have a flock of these poop machines out at Lost Key - please take them away!!!!

Anonymous said...

people always seem to take the easy way out of everything....ya know wildlife was here wayyy before golf courses and humans. Maybe they need to relocated or git rid of some golf courses - don't we have enought of them around too? I mean the way folks hit the hard small balls around some human or animal could git hurt real bad.
Maybe the geese were trying to tell y'all somethin ya think????