State's early hunt would cull resident geese
The Massachusetts early Canada goose hunting season begins Tuesday one half hour before sunrise and ends at sunset on Friday, Sept. 25. The timing of the season is intended to reduce growing populations of geese that have lost their natural urge to migrate with the seasons.
Canada geese feed on young growth and pull vegetation up by the roots. The large birds also produce from one half to a pound and half of droppings per day according to state wildlife biologists.
A recent study of fecal contamination in several Island ponds by a University of New Hampshire professor identified geese and cormorants as significant sources of E. coli bacteria.
Farmers and shell fishermen concerned about the damaging effects of a large non-migratory goose population on Island water bodies and agricultural fields often welcome the sound of booming shotguns in the early fall.
Matthew Goldfarb, executive director of the FARM Institute in Katama, said large flocks of geese impact agricultural fields in two significant ways. The fall is the last opportunity to generate new growth for farm livestock over the winter months. Geese target the vegetation and pull it up by the roots.
"It impacts our pasture quality going into the winter and the root health of the plants," Mr. Goldfarb said. The FARM also plants cover crops once a field has been harvested to protect the soil. "Whether it is corn fields or vegetable fields or a new hay field, the geese will go right after anything that is newly germinated," he said.
Mr. Goldfarb said the FARM attempts to aggressively disrupt the geese but it is a difficult job that takes constant vigilance. "If they settle in they will wipe out a cover crop which then means we have barren soil," he said. "Once the winter comes and the winds kick up we end up with a lot of wind erosion."
Mr. Goldfarb said hunting is allowed on the FARM but only with prior permission.
Sengekontacket Pond, the salt pond shared by Oak Bluffs and Edgartown, hosts a large population of non-migratory geese. For the past three summers, the pond has been closed to shellfishing due to high coliform bacteria levels, used as an indicator of water quality, attributed in part to a large number of nesting waterfowl, including geese and cormorants.
Last spring, Dr. Stephen H. Jones of the University of New Hampshire Jackson Estuarine Laboratory in Durham, N.H., completed a report ("E. coli Ribotyping for Identifying Sources of Fecal Contamination in the Salt Ponds of Martha's Vineyard") on his investigation into the most significant sources of bacterial contamination in Trapps, Eel, Farm, and Sengekontacket ponds.
Mr. Jones found little evidence of human-borne contamination and insignificant indication of pet, wild animal, and livestock sources. "Overall," he wrote, "the results from this study are strong indications of significant bird sources, particularly cormorants and geese."
In a telephone conversation yesterday, Oak Bluffs shellfish constable David Grunden said that birds are a major source of bacterial contamination. Mr. Grunden said it is unclear how effective the early hunting season would be given the fact that hunting is not allowed in many areas where geese congregate.
In 2008, the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (DFW) increased the daily bag limit from five to seven geese in an effort to further reduce the number of geese that have made Massachusetts their year-round home.
DFW waterfowl project leader H. Heusmann said the early season provides goose hunters with ample hunting and gives more time to landowners to allow hunters to reduce the size of nuisance flocks of resident geese.
According to a history of goose management provided on the DFW website, prior to the 1930s, it was unusual for geese to nest in Massachusetts. That is no longer the case.
Canada geese are large birds, averaging 10 to14 pounds.
The Canada goose is a grazer. Geese form permanent pair bonds, but if one bird dies, the other will seek a new mate in the next breeding season.
Adult females lay 4 to 6 eggs in a clutch. Non-breeders and yearlings form separate flocks. By fall, they all gather into one large flock for the winter.
In Massachusetts, there are two different populations of Canada geese. The first is the migratory population that passes through in the spring and fall. The second is the resident population, descendants of captive geese once used by waterfowl hunters to attract passing birds.
When live decoys were outlawed in the 1930s, many captive birds were liberated. With no pattern of migration, these geese began nesting. They found a ready source of food among the well manicured and watered lawns, fields, and golf courses of suburbia.
In the 1960s and early 70s DFW moved birds from the coast into central and western Massachusetts to the applause of both hunters and non-hunters. "No one imagined the population explosion which followed," DFW said. Resident goose flocks grew and in 1983 DFW biologists estimated 10,000 to 12,000 of the geese were probably year-round residents. By 1997, that number had grown to an estimated 38,000 geese statewide.
Although DFW recommends a number of strategies to move geese from an area, the result is a relocation of the problem.
DFW said that to achieve a reasonable comfort level for both geese and people, the number of geese must be reduced. "Studies by biologists show that the most efficient way to reduce the size of a flock is to increase mortality of adult geese, resulting in fewer birds laying eggs and adding fewer goslings to the population," DFW said.
In 1995, the Massachusetts Fisheries and Wildlife Board instituted special early and late goose seasons designed to reduce the resident goose population. Data suggested that 25 percent of the resident goose population was harvested, but recent studies indicate that for populations to be controlled, at least 30 to 35 percent need to be harvested annually DFW said.