Protesters holding cutouts of Canada geese and buttons picturing the birds urged the Ocean County Board of Freeholders again to abandon a contract with the federal government that provides for the killing of Canada geese as a measure of population control.
The protesters — about a dozen or so, representing GooseWatch NJ and the Humane Society of the United States as well as a handful of Ocean County residents — spoke in particular about the method used by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for killing the geese: rounding them up while they are unable to fly and then gassing them with carbon dioxide.
Since 2008, the county has contracted with the USDA for removal of a portion of the county's population of Canada geese. The contracts have cost $64,243, with more than 650 geese killed so far. But Freeholder Deputy Director John Bartlett said that contract was entered into after a decade of attempting to control the geese through nonlethal methods and seeing no improvement.
"It's not up to us to gas them because we find them inconvenient," said Judy Allen, a resident of Greenbriar Woodlands in Toms River. "There has to be a better alternative. I don't approve of my tax money going to this."
At the end of the meeting, Bartlett directed Michael Mangum, director of the department of Parks and Recreation, to talk with the protest groups to see if there were any other solutions that have not been considered.
The protesters first spoke at the May 16 freeholders meeting, with five speakers —none from Ocean County — speaking against the contract. At that time, Bartlett, the liaison to the county's parks and recreation department, said the issue isn't one of inconvenience as much as one of health and safety.
According to a 2009 post on the blog Birdstrike Control Program, New Jersey is home to roughly 80,000 Canada geese, the largest population of any state in the country. How many of those reside in Ocean County is unclear but the problem, officials say, is the geese are resident Canada geese — not ones migrating to and from Canada.
The goose population began growing significantly in the 1980s and 1990s, and Bartlett said that as the population expanded, the county began having water quality issues at Stanley "Tip" Seaman Park in Tuckerton and A. Paul King Park in Manahawkin, forcing repeated swimming closures of the lakes at both parks.
"Lake Manahawkin was closed for years because of water quality issues," Bartlett said. "Elimination of geese has allowed us to restore swimming at that park."
"These are resident, non-migratory geese that were not here ... 20 years ago," Bartlett said, noting the county had tried dogs to chase the geese, firing blanks from shotguns to scare them, repellents, eagle kites (a predator of Canada geese) and physical barriers — but none were effective. Over time, the geese realized there was no real threat and came back, he said.
"We’ve done addling of eggs and that works to some extent if you can find all nests and get to them, but you can’t," he said. Addling of eggs involves shaking the eggs so they won't hatch. Another method of preventing the hatching of eggs involves coating them with oil, essentially suffocating the embryo because the oil blocks the shell's permeability.
Kathleen Schatzmann, New Jersey state director of the HSUS, suggested that perhaps the county's past attempts to use nonlethal means were not chosen well.
"Harassment strategies are immensely more effective," said Schatzmann, who lives in Monmouth County. "I implore you to stop the gassing."
Suzanne Dragon of Aberdeen said often the problem is that agencies trying use nonlethal methods don't use them effectively.
"They implement a little bit of this a little bit of that, and they don't give it long enough to work," she said. "If you want to have a lasting solution, you need to do it exactly as Geese Peace (another organization fighting the killing of Canada geese) says."
But Dragon sparked Bartlett's ire when she began to draw a comparison between gassing the geese and the gassing of Jews during the Holocaust. Dragon, who is Jewish, said, "You have no idea what it feels like to someone who had family members who were gassed," to which Bartlett replied the comparison was inappropriate.
Things also got testy when David Sauder, president of the Animal Rights Activists of NJ, began to recite information that contends droppings from the geese — the birds produce between a half-pound and a pound of feces per day, according to the Rutgers Cooperative Extension Service — do not contribute significantly to water quality issues.
"Domestic animal waste and poor water circulation are much greater causes of water quality problems," Sauder said.
Bartlett interrupted Sauder: "You're saying domestic animal waste as opposed to wild animal waste?" and Sauder insisted the geese droppings were not the problem.
"The droppings are merely lying on the ground," he said.
Sauder cited information from a biologist who previously worked for the state that said the droppings did not carry a significant amount of the types of bacteria that are associated with human illnesses, such as E. coli, giardia, salmonella and cryptosporidium.
"The amount of cryptosporidium is minimal and unimportant," Sauder said. "The giardia transmission is small compared to humans."
"Toddlers pose a far greater risk to public health than Canada geese," Sauder said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, Canada goose feces contain all of the bacteria listed above and many more, including a variant of chlamydia that was labeled as a serious threat. But the CDC notes there is not enough data on the risk because few studies have been done on the feces. The US Geologic Survey, in concert with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, conducted a study in the late 1990s that noted the existence of pathogens in the feces. A report issued in 2003 for the 10th Wildlife Damage Control conference also noted the lack of data and a need for further study. (Both documents are attached to this story in pdf form.)
An 2009 article in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology, produced by the American Society for Microbiology, concluded: "The importance of free-living bird populations as reservoirs for human waterborne pathogens is becoming increasingly evident. Due to their migratory character, waterfowl populations can amplify and eventually transmit infectious microbes to humans by directly contaminating agricultural fields or surface waters used for potable water, recreation, or crop irrigation."
But it, too, notes more research is needed.
Bartlett and Freeholder Joseph H. Vicari, who was a principal in the Brick Township schools in the 1990s, said the risk wasn't just to water quality.
"I had kids with eye infections, their parents coming to me asking for help," Vicari said.
Josh Barr of GooseWatch NJ suggested, in a letter to the freeholders that he distributed to the media, that the problem of kids getting skin infections could be dealt with by more parents teaching their children to wash their hands.
"I've played on fields with bird slicks, swam in water where bird bombs touched down. But I also had parents who taught me the highly complex art of washing my hands," he wrote. "It's not a cure-all. It will help."
"I would love to have them (the protesters) talk to some of the moms who've called us," Mangum said after the meeting.
GooseWatch NJ contends nonlethal methods are less costly, citing how Lacey Township went from spending $9,000 on lethal means of dealing with the geese to $3,000 on nonlethal means.
According to Lacey Township Administrator and Municipal Clerk Veronica
Laureigh, the township has expended about $5,700 to date on nonlethal methods to control the geese population. Laureigh noted that is only for two lakes, which is a small condensed area compared to the county
Bartlett said nonlethal methods were more expensive than the contracts it's had in place since 2008.
"We spent $53,000 on border collies," Bartlett said Wednesday. But the county was unable to provide a complete estimate of how much it cost to employ the nonlethal methods.
"Because of the number of other methods used — including but not limited to dogs, sound machines, guns firing blanks, owls, plastic alligators, repellents, physical barriers, etc, and the number of years over which we have used these techniques, we don't have a running tally of the cost available," said Donna Flynn, the county's public information director.
Mangum did point out after the meeting that the USDA contract is not just for gassing the birds.
"They are addling the eggs as well," Mangum said. But the county can only get to nests on its property, which means other places the geese are nesting go untouched. A pair of Canada geese produces three to eight young per year, which means the population can increase rapidly.
And the problem of the feces isn't just limited to swimming, he noted. Even if you use a machine such as one Sauder suggested called "Nature Sweep," which picks up the debris from grassy areas, Mangum said, the residue is still left behind.
"Parks are built for people and we invest a lot of money in that," Bartlett said. "It's unfortunate but the only (method) that works is to eliminate the geese through the program with the USDA."
"We always look for other means," Mangum said. "This is a last resort."