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"Opinionatedly Yours"
#14: June 30, 1998

Killing Canada Geese in Humboldt County
By Barry Kent MacKay

The California Department of Fish and Game recently prepared a draft environmental document pertaining to hunting regulations for the "resident" Canada goose population of Humboldt County.

There is a question of just how "resident" any given population of Canada geese may be. Generally, among people who casually see urban geese in their neighborhoods on a day to day basis, the perception is that the same geese are being seen over and over again. However, banding studies, when undertaken, tend to show that the birds may be surprisingly mobile. Often it is "molt migrants" who do not actually breed in the area that are nevertheless are most responsible for conflicts with human interests.

However, that is another issue.

Killing for the Good of Society

The document in question purports to explore what would happen if no Canada geese were "harvested" in a special open hunting season in October, targeting some 400 birds. Assuming (as would never be the completely true) that the birds not hunted would be added to the Humboldt County population -- that is to say, assuming about 400 more would survive if there was no hunting than would otherwise survive -- then "the resident population would continue to grow, but [at] a faster pace."

This above quote is taken from a section dedicated to the "advantages" of not hunting the geese.

"For those that view hunting as an unacceptable use of animals and suffer anguish in the knowledge that this activity is occurring, the elimination of a special September season for resident Canada geese in Humboldt County will eliminate this."

Here's a quibble. It may sound like mere semantic argument but in fact I know of no one, not even the staunchest defender of animal rights, who opposes hunting. Hunting is the means by which an animal secures necessary food that is not otherwise available. The lynx stalking a hare; the robin searching for worms; the orca seeking a school of ocean perch ... all are hunting. The killing of Canada geese currently under consideration by the California Department of Fish and Game is something quite different, sometimes distinguished by the term "sport."

But entertainment is a poor excuse for killing things, at least in the minds of some people. Thus "hunting" must be more than "sport," it must also be a "management tool." Killing, in order to be socially acceptable, really should serve some purpose additional to its entertainment value.

"Elimination of this project," continues the draft report, "may accelerate and enhance efforts by those trying to reduce the use of animals, for food, medical research, recreation and other commercial benefits."

I think we may assume a bit of sloppy writing, here. It is unlikely that the California Department of Fish and Game really sees the enhancement of efforts to reduce use of animals for food, medical research or recreation as an "advantage."

As if to validate my accusation of sloppy writing, the final sentence in that paragraph reads: "Elimination of secondary commercial benefits, although quite small for this proposed project, may enhance efforts to make commercial development more viable."

In that sentence "commercial development" presumably is a code phrase that we are supposed to recognize as meaning the destruction of wetland habitat. Similarly, "secondary commercial benefits" presumably means benefits that flow from the act of sport hunting, such as the purchase of hunting supplies, permits and so on. It is taken as a given that such "benefits," even though "quite small," are the most effective incentive for protecting habitat.

Where the Not-So Wild Goose Goes

Whether habitat is even an issue is not clearly evident. Urbanized Canada geese -- the kind usually considered to be "resident" -- tend to be attracted less to "natural" wetlands, marshes and other ecosystems of value to native wetland animals, including other waterfowl, than to "developed" land. It is widespread lawns that are attractive to urbanized Canada geese. They often nest in suboptimal conditions around parks and golf courses, attracted to the short-cut grass. Unlike ducks, geese are grazing animals, and their increase in urban areas owes everything to their taste for fresh green lawns, or "turf."

What are the "disadvantages" of a prohibition on hunting?

According to this draft document: "A limited number of hunting license buyers in California would not have the opportunity to participate in this special nine-day season, and the Department would not have taken steps to follow the Conservation of Wildlife Resources Policy (Fish and Game Code Section 1801) to provide diversified recreational use of wildlife resources consistent with maintaining these populations."

There are two parts to this concern. One, a "limited number" of hunters with licenses would be deprived of a nine-day opportunity to kill geese. Earlier the draft document said that an "advantage" of prohibiting the special open season is the elimination of "mental anguish" in those people who "view hunting as an unacceptable use of animals." The term "hunting" as it applies to the "resident" geese of Humboldt County is at least questionable; it is more like a slaughter of birds who have relatively little fear of humans, compared to true and unquestionably migrant birds. It could therefore be argued that a decision may be based on a comparison between the numbers of people feeling "anguish" against those who want to kill geese.

The number of hunters in California is a tiny fraction of the population overall. Not everyone who does not hunt is opposed to hunting, but I suspect that the majority of those who do not hunt, plus a few who do, would be opposed to the slaughter envisioned for another season by the California Department of Fish and Game.

A Questionable Matter of Policy

The other part of the concern is that a "policy" would be violated. The policy is to allow "diversified recreational use of wildlife resources consistent with maintaining those populations." This puts the Department in a bit of a bind. In the extremely unlikely event that the population of Canada geese in question is truly discreet, with very little migration and very little breeding or interchange between the stock in question and birds from other areas, the imposition of a hunt most certainly does have the potential of reducing, as opposed to maintaining, the population. On the other hand, Canada geese are prolific, and with reasonable bag limits the hunt could be "sustainable," meaning that there would be virtually no discernible decrease in geese as a result of the special open season.

However, if there's no decrease in the geese, where is the resolution to whatever problems those geese are causing? If the geese are causing social problems within the community (urban geese sometimes annoy at least some people by destroying turf and befouling landscape and water reservoirs, including beaches, playgrounds and picnic areas; some people feel intimidated by the defensive antics of adult geese protecting their nests), then obviously such a hunt would not achieve the objective of reducing human/goose conflicts.

On the other hand, it is possible that there would be a measurable reduction in goose/human conflict if the hunt was of adequate magnitude to significantly reduce the number of birds in the region. However, that would be inconsistent with the goal of "maintaining those populations."

In short, apart from revenue generation, the sole purpose of the hunt is to entertain hunters; to provide them with whatever pleasure derives from the killing of geese.

Making Death Socially Acceptable

Pandering to a need to kill for pleasure is a bit of a hard sell to a such a predominately non-hunting population, and so the Department of Fish and Game has, in its draft document, articulated a more socially acceptable rationale for the proposed nine-day special hunt:

"The Federal EISs (USDI 1975:218-221, USDI 1988:20) indicate that this alternative would be expected to: (1) reduce migratory bird habitat; (2) allow some populations to increase in the short term but then decline as habitat was lost; (3) eliminate the moral or emotional concern of those opposed to hunting of migratory birds; (4) eliminate a traditional and popular recreational activity; (5) potentially increase the impacts of crop depredations as habitat was lost; (6) reduce the ability to gather scientific information on migratory birds derived from hunters; (7) reduce expenditures by hunters; (8) result in population declines in other wildlife species that are dependent on habitats that would decline; and (9) reduce the revenues to State and federal agencies."

Wow. That is quite a shopping list of effects, most of which appear to be negative. In other words, if the birds are not killed more bad things would happen than good things. However, before we break open a new box of 12 gauge number twos and oil the old full-choke pump gun perhaps we should look more carefully at each point.

Point (1), the reduction of migratory bird habitat is a variant of point (3), which forecasts the decline in geese as a function of habitat loss, and point (8), which makes a similar forecast with regard other migratory bird species.

But are these concerns valid? To a degree greater than avocets, ruddy ducks, American coots, northern pintails, American bitterns, gadwalls, sora rails, or any other migratory birds that depend on marshes, swamps, estuaries, sloughs, and other wetlands with emergent vegetation for breeding grounds or for staging areas during migration, the Canada goose is independent of such needs. The very habitat that would not be saved if hunting Canada geese were not allowed is habitat that Canada geese can live without better than most other wetland birds.

Canada geese require open water and adjoining shoreline leading to turf. Yes, they can and do avail themselves of cattail marshes, tule beds, and other wetlands, indeed they are enormously generalized in their habitat requirements. It is not necessary to protect wetlands that are of value to other migratory bird species in order to have geese present within the community. Indeed, the only incentive goose hunting might provide for the protection of such wetlands, with emergent vegetation, is to allow places where they can be shot by hunters. It would not be socially acceptable, after all, for men with guns to set their blinds amid the children, their parents, and the retired folks who might enjoy feeding the urbanized geese down by a lake shore or at a parkland reservoir.

However there is a problem that wildlife agencies, with their simplistic calculations, tend to avoid. Geese who are shot in the kinds of habitats that are of such value to other migratory birds, including waterfowl, are, effectively "selected against." When such birds are killed, whatever genetic aptitude or inclination that encouraged them to indulge in historic migration patterns and habitat selection is lost in a hail of shotgun pellets. Those geese who stick to the urban settings where they are most likely both to bring pleasure and strife to the human population are "selected for." To the degree that their propensity for such urban areas is either inherent or learned, it is nevertheless "selected for" by the act of goose hunting.

It is unnatural conditions, with hard-edged shorelines and large areas of greensward, that are most attractive to Canada geese. No one wants to see more natural wetlands disappear, and the blackmailing attitude of the Department of Fish and Game is most unfortunate. The reason for killing geese has shifted from mere entertainment of that small segment of the population who takes pleasure from killing things to the protection of natural wetlands with emergent vegetation that is essential as breeding grounds or staging areas for a wide variety of bird species, as well as a great deal of other wildlife. Indeed, the sad thing is that the California Department of Fish and Game seems to imply that the "only" value to such wetlands is as a place to kill things; removal of the killing, goes the strongly implied argument, equals removal of any incentive or economic means to protect wetlands.

The science of ecology has been around for decades that have seen an explosive growth in our overall understanding of human dependence on biodiversity and the ecological integrity of our landscape overall. Wetlands variously serve the vital functions of maintaining clean water and air, and form the basis of food chains that not only extend to the human species, but which form the foundation of much social and economic endeavor.

There are also possibly less directly tangible but no less important psychological values to a diverse and natural landscape.

Point (5) is absurdly speculative. Would there be an increase in crop depredation if wetland habitat were lost? The author of this draft report seems to know little about Canada geese. Implied in the contention is the belief that Canada geese somehow prefer unspecified natural wetlands (whose nature we can assume by virtue of their being of value to other "migratory birds") over other habitats. On the contrary, geese are grazing animals for whom turf lawns and certain commercial crops are of greater gastronomic interest than what natural wetlands could provide. If geese eating either grass or unspecified commercial crops are "bad," then so are the wetlands that augment or possibly enhance the overall carrying capacity of the local environment -- at least they are bad in the simplistic model implied by the California Department of Fish and Game. The fact is that if you are going to have Canada geese, you are going to have Canada geese eating turf and possibly some crops. Among migratory waterbirds utilizing wetlands in Humboldt County, California, Canada geese are among the least dependent on those wetlands.

Point (7), the reduction of expenditures by hunters that would derive from the elimination of a hunting season also requires explanation missing from this draft document. Implied here is the absurd notion that money spent on hunting would not otherwise be spent. At best it might be argued that it would not be spent in Humboldt County -- that is to say, that the nine-day special hunting season would attract money from other regions as hunters came to Humboldt County to kill geese. However, any money spent in Humboldt County by hunters who would not otherwise travel to that county -- people for whom the only attraction is the chance to kill geese -- is money not spent elsewhere.

Why Humboldt County is more needful of that expenditure is not explained. Indeed, neither is it explained just how much that money might be. Most supplies obtained by visiting hunters are probably obtained outside Humboldt County. Fuel, motel accommodation, and meals would most likely be the main expenditures of visiting hunters. Nowhere is this quantified or measured against losses that might derive from an absence of other visitors who would prefer to avoid areas where hunting is allowed. It seems likely that the amount of money spent by visiting hunters would be negligible, and as long as Humboldt County is part of the United States of America, it is not clear how whatever expenditure that is made is of some form of superior value to what would otherwise be spent in other parts of California or other states of the Union.

The killing of geese is for sale. Point (9) seems to support the most cynical view of the anti-hunting community, that the real reason for hunting is to tax people willing to pay to kill animals in order to fund government agencies who hire biologists and bureaucrats to manage the killing of those animals. It is not merely that hunters "pay their way," the argument goes, but that they pay the way to protect non-game species as well, by providing the only effective incentive for protecting habitat.

Even if society is unwilling or in some fashion unable to support the cost of maintaining the country's commitment to biodiversity; even if society is unwilling or in some fashion unable to support the cost of protecting the socio-economic interests that flow from a diverse and healthy ecosystem, complete with wetlands, clean air, and clean water, the demographics indicate that current alleged dependence on hunting revenues is dangerously short-sighted. For a variety of reasons, hunting is decreasingly popular among Americans. For the past two decades there has been a marked decline in sport hunters in the U.S. In 1995, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, only 5.79% of Americans purchased hunting licenses compared to 7.4% in 1991 and 9.9% in 1975.

In 1995, a poll taken in California demonstrated that 81% of respondents felt that hunting for sport of a trophy is a bad idea. On the other hand, nature study and so-called non-consumptive use of wildlife is growing at explosive rates.

I don't necessarily buy into the argument that hunting is the major source of funding for protection of the environment. However, that is what the California Department of Fish and Game seems to be saying. The government seems to be saying that our ability to love of nature and protect the environment depends upon killing in the interest of entertainment.

We are, by far, the deadliest species ever to live on this planet. But we are also, by far, the single species most capable of self-control, and compassion for individuals of other species. It is a fact of history that hunters were generally the first to recognize the dangers of their own excesses that has led to such disproportionate influence by the hook and bullet fraternity over state and federal wildlife management agencies.

And so, it is argued, the geese of Humboldt County will be killed, and once again the final solution school of wildlife management will prevail. No less than in those blood-stained Hollywood films that see the gun as the final source of justice, violence again triumphs in American society.