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Solution sought for hungry geese

Farmers are losing money, but the birds are federally protected


Geese fill the sky and fields Thursday at Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge in Polk County, west of Salem. Programs to improve such refuges and draw geese away from crops have lost funding in the past two years.

Ken Iverson calls the geese that cover his grass seed and tulip fields "flying sheep."

It's not only because they flock like sheep but because they graze like sheep.

"Their numbers get so big and they come in and graze down the grass," the Woodburn resident said. "Especially toward the spring when grass is wanting to grow, they are getting ready to migrate and they eat more."

Farmers are stuck in a frustrating situation: They lose money from geese eating and stomping on their young crops, but geese are federally protected and some subspecies' populations are declining. It also is difficult to tell the difference between the species that have healthy populations and the ones that are in trouble.

That's why U.S. Rep. Darlene Hooley, D-West Linn, is pushing for federal money to offset farmers' losses to federally protected geese.

"I believe that if the federal government is responsible for causing a problem for Oregon farmers, the federal government should pay to help solve that problem," she said.

On the state side, House Joint Memorial 5, sponsored by state Rep. Brian Boquist, R-Dallas, and Jeff Kropf, R-Sublimity, urges the federal government to comply.

The goose depredation program includes assistance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services to help landowners haze geese, run goose-harvest-management programs through the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and design better habitats on wildlife refuges so that geese stay on the refuges and off private land.

However, the program has not been funded in the past two years.

And the goose population in the Willamette Valley has skyrocketed.

Biologists estimate that between 200,000 and 300,000 geese live in the Willamette Valley -- up from about 25,000 in the 1980s.

"The Willamette Valley is unique because we have seven subspecies of the Canada goose that nest here in the winter," said Brad Bales, state waterfowl biologist at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "Some of the populations are rather robust, but some are species of concern. So we have to manage for the weakest link here."

The dusky Canada goose is the most regulated of the species because of its low population. Complicated hunting regulations to protect the dusky cost the state about $200,000 a year, Bales said.

To add to the problem, the cackling Canada goose population that used to winter in California now spends the colder months in the Willamette Valley.

"Some conservation efforts were put into place for the cackling goose, and the population started coming back and then all of a sudden most of those birds shifted to the Willamette Valley," Bales said. "We already had management problems with geese, and then we got more."

But one person's problem is another person's prize.

Cackling geese are a main food source for the Yu'pik Eskimos and they want to ensure the bird's population thrives.

Tribal members came to Salem this week to work with the Oregon Farm Bureau to address the geese depredation issue and also ensure the geese survive.

The most recent study of the economic effects of geese depredation -- from a 1997 survey by the Oregon Department of Agriculture -- found that geese caused about $15 million in crop damage in one year.

"People underestimate the geese," said Tim Bernasek, general counsel for the Oregon Farm Bureau. "Farmers and the general public care about wildlife, but when you have too many of the birds like we have now, it really does create a huge problem."

Bernasek said that aside from eating young crops, geese spread weed seeds in their waste.

Iverson said that protection of geese leads to secondary problems for farmers. For example, when he has a mice problem in his fields, he can't put poison bait out to kill them because it might kill the geese.

"What it does is affect your ability to manage," he said. "If we are going to consider these geese species worth protecting and saving -- if this is for the greater public good -- then our efforts to protect them should be recognized."

bcasper@StatesmanJournal.com or (503) 589-6994





Page Updated: Thursday May 07, 2009 09:15 AM  Pacific

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