Geese Feast on Wetlands

Birds Are Affecting Plans to Restore Anacostia Marshland

Posted April 24, 2007 at 4:18pm

The Anacostia River soon will get 20 acres of wetlands to help clean its polluted waters — a small step forward in efforts to make up for the thousands of acres that have been destroyed over the past century.

But another destructive force could render it all futile: the large, hungry Canada geese of the Anacostia. Originally transplanted decades ago for hunting in places throughout the United States, the species has settled into the Washington, D.C., area, multiplied and gotten comfortable, said Steve

McKindley-Ward, a horticulturist with the nonprofit Anacostia Watershed Society. And wetland plants are one of their favorite foods: They ate much of the $6 million worth of vegetation planted along the blighted Anacostia in 2000. [IMGCAP(1)]

“We created somewhat of a little Frankenstein,” McKindley-Ward said. “The most common complaint is that they poop over everything. We have a more serious ecological beef. They are preventing habitat for a much more wider array of migratory species that would use these [wetlands].”

Now, thanks to an $8 million restoration effort by the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project, 20 acres of wetlands will be planted near Bladensburg, Md., to absorb extra nutrients and help clean the polluted Anacostia River. However, the worry over whether the geese will ruin future wetlands has paused any bigger efforts.

The National Park Service plans to do something about it. Over the next year, the agency will hold public meetings and research the effect the geese have on the river. Officials hope to minimize the damage the geese wreak on wetland plants (in some areas the geese eat the plants faster than volunteers and environmentalists can replace them).

Possible solutions include implementing birth control, using dogs to chase away flocks and treating the plants with substances that deter the geese, said Stephen Syphax of the park’s National Capital Parks East Division.

But McKindley-Ward said his organization supports a more drastic option: killing the Canada geese and using the meat to supply food banks.

It wouldn’t be the first time an invasive population of Canada geese has been killed. In 2000, Seattle began an annual ritual of rounding up the geese and gassing them. By 2003, the population had been cut by 75 percent.

Syphax said this method is an option, but the park service also will consider how the geese enrich visitor’s experiences and whether non-lethal options will work just as well. Studies will be done and impacts considered.

“It’s a tough issue because there are many people who come out here — visitors to parks and neighbors alike — who absolutely enjoy the geese, and it’s not hard to understand,” he said. “As much as they are an issue in my parks, I still enjoy hearing the geese honking.”

John Hadidian, the director of the Humane Society’s urban wildlife program, said he supports an integrated program that would control the population using different methods for different parts of the year. Killing them and using their meat for foods banks — a practice he says is not monitored well enough — sets a dangerous precedent, he said.

“We do feel strongly that there’s an ethical and moral side to the question, and it’s necessary for us to really consider that in its entirety and to look at an ecological solution,” he said. “If they start down this path of rounding up and killing geese, they’re going to have to follow it forever.”

Standing knee-deep in a mud flat with the sound of geese around him, McKindley-Ward said in a phone interview that the Anacostia Watershed Society has been observing and documenting the Canada geese for years. Fences are put around some wetlands and birth control methods are used, but still the organization must race to replace eaten plants. This weekend, volunteers will trudge out and transplant some arrow arum plants, one of two wetland plants the geese won’t eat.

The park service will look into these methods, along with what environments the geese find attractive. Kingman Marsh, where those $6 million of wetlands were planted, lies near a golf course — the perfect place for geese to waddle about and then graze among the wetland plants when hungry. But other areas may deter geese because of rough terrain or natural buffers.

Stephanie Boyles, a wildlife biologist with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said the key to decreasing the Canada geese population is getting surrounding areas to follow the same methods. Without uniformity, any efforts could be futile, she said.

“It’s hard to get people in surrounding areas to do something as controversial as a roundup,” she said. “Some people like having them around.”