Geese Harvesting at Roger Williams Park

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Getting rid of geese isn’t easy. Egg oiling, dogs and coyote decoys all have their drawbacks. Last month, Roger Williams Park opted for more drastic action — capturing and killing 410 of its some 1,000 resident Canada geese.

The controversial tactic was heightened by the fact the goose meat was processed for eventual delivery to area soup kitchens.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Wildlife Services, which carried out the project, the capture occurred in mid-July when the geese were molting and less apt to fly. They were herded into fenced-in areas and placed in turkey crates. They were later euthanized with carbon dioxide, a method approved by the American Veterinarian Medical Association.

The meat was then donated to a local "hunters for the hungry" wildlife meat program and distributed to soup kitchens in Massachusetts.

The USDA adopted the practice of capturing and euthanizing geese after a flock of Canada geese forced a passenger jet to ditch in the Hudson River in January 2009.

Rhode Island Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals (RISPCA) President E.J. Finocchio said the killing of geese is regrettable but necessary as humans and animals struggle to coexist.

"It’s an unfortunate thing that happened, but unfortunately it had to happen to prevent things from getting worse," Finocchio said.

Thomas Ardito, restoration program manager for the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program, said the practice is common and “the right thing to do.”

The act, he said, was a small part of a million-dollar effort to restore the popular park's ponds and landscape. The rapid growth of a permanent goose population has impacted the park's environment, especially its centerpiece — a network of urban ponds. The park's 100 acres of fresh water are polluted by the pound of waste each goose generates daily. Nearly 20 percent of the ponds' pollution problems are caused by the birds' waste, according to Ardito.

The nutrients found in geese waste acts as fertilizer that causes algae to grow uncontrollably, which chokes life in the ponds and can be toxic to humans, Ardito said.

Resident Canada geese arrived in the 1950s when the state Division of Fish & Wildlife introduced non-migratory geese to the Great Swamp Management Area in West Kingston. Their population accelerated in the past decade, in large part because of a lack of natural predators. At least 5,000 resident Canada geese live in Rhode Island, according to state officials.

Federal and state projects are underway to curtail the park's geese population, which has a stubborn love for grazing on short-cut grass. With assistance from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, several abatement techniques are having limited success, such as growing taller grasses, scaring devices and chemical lawn repellents. Egg oiling, which prevents eggs from hatching, also is becoming more common.

The recent trapping project at Roger Williams Park was carried out by the city's Parks & Recreation Department, the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM), the state Department of Health and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Ardito said the geese spread unhealthy bacteria, and help cause shoreline erosion by eating roots. Phosphorous from their waste has created algae blooms that have destroyed plant life and killed fish in the park's ponds.

Parks Department Superintendent Robert McMahon called the park's geese population a public health concern. The “pea soup” algae blooms have increased, and last August the state issued a severe public health warning over a toxic algae bloom in the park.

“Algae in the park ponds is no longer only a unpleasant nuisance, it is becoming a public health problem for park users,” McMahon said.

To control the geese, city and park officials have tried dogs, which only chased the geese from one pond to another. New plantings around pond shorelines, the posting of signs and egg oiling are helping but aren’t expected to show results for five to 10 years.

Geese, however, aren't the only problem when it comes to keeping the park's ponds and landscape healthy. The Roger Williams Park Ponds Restoration Program is working on a number of problems to improve the park.

Twenty-five percent of the total acreage of Roger Williams Park is ponds, and because of the park's location within a highly urbanized setting, the ponds have become polluted with nitrogen and phosphorus. The high levels of these pollutants result from a number of factors beyond geese poop.

Outdated stormwater management practices often funnel runoff either directly into the ponds or into drainage pipes that empty into the ponds. This runoff, from the time it hits the ground to the time it enters the ponds, absorbs nitrogen and phosphorous from a number of sources, such as lawn treatments and impervious surfaces like roads and sidewalks.

To deal with the problem, rain gardens, called bio-retention areas, have and are being installed. And this fall, a road is being torn up and replaced with a pedestrian walkway.

In the long term, Ardito said he hopes the park will be maintained by a nonprofit to raise money for its upkeep and help oversee projects. The organization would be modeled after the successful group running Central Park in New York, the Central Park Conservancy.

“As you can see there’s quite a lot of work to be done,” Ardito said.