Resident geese numbers down but culling undecided

Formal population count to be done after goslings are done hatching

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Denver Parks officials said they haven't decided if they'll cull Canada geese again this summer, but said the bird's numbers have significantly decreased in some city parks.

“The numbers are looking really good,” said Scott Gilmore, the parks department's deputy executive director. “They're really low in Wash and City Park.”

Washington Park is now home to about 50 resident geese, down from about 300 to 400 last year at this time, Gilmore said. But that's not the case in all the city's parks, and a decision about a second round of culling won't be made until Denver Parks does a more formal count. That will take place after goslings are done hatching, typically in late May.

Washington Park resident Steve Spirn, who represents Citizens to Restore the Parks, said he's noticed the goose population has diminished.

“Short-term, I think things are better,” he said. “We'll have to see what summer brings. I don't know if it's a long-term solution — that's a question answered by time and experience.”

In 2018, the citizens group Spirn represents submitted a petition to the city with 1,500 signatures, urging them to resolve the overpopulation issue. The group preferred nonlethal action, but Spirn said it was content with the decision to cull.

In June and July 2019, Denver Parks partnered with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Colorado Wildlife Services to round up about 1,700 geese from four city parks — including Washington and City parks. The geese were killed at a northern Colorado processing plant, and their meat was distributed to families in need. Denver Parks has a three-year contract with the USDA.

Birds' pattern changed

The Canada goose historically bred in Canada and the northern U.S., migrating south in the winter. While some geese still follow that pattern, many have made permanent homes as far south as Florida. Denver has a winter population that includes a mix of migratory and permanent, or resident, geese. The latter group has become a source of controversy in recent years as its population dramatically increased.

Denver Parks' website states the decision to cull followed 15 years of goose management tactics that failed to keep the population in check, resulting in “an unnatural number of geese” for the parks, and so much goose excrement it degraded the environment and the parks experience.

Meanwhile, parks employees are searching for nests and oiling eggs, a population control measure that prevents the eggs from hatching.

Plans to partner with Canada Geese Protection Colorado (CGPC) volunteers to oil eggs were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“We're disappointed but it's understandable,” said CGPC spokesperson Courtney DeWinter. “We tried every angle we could to make the program go forward. When you get a global pandemic, all bets are off for everything.”

CGPG, which formed last July in the wake of the initial culling, advocates for humane, non-lethal methods of goose management including exhaustive egg oiling. The group had found 25 volunteers willing to help the city oil eggs. DeWinter estimated the city needed to oil 10,000 to 12,000 eggs this spring to significantly impact the goose population — estimated at 5,000 resident geese by Denver Parks — and eliminate the need for culling. That's nearly triple the number of eggs Denver Parks has oiled in the past as part of its own program. DeWinter also said parks employees need to oil at more than six parks to adequately address the issue.

Official disputes claim

Gilmore disputes DeWinter's egg oiling number, and said parks staff are “oiling all the eggs we can find.”

“You can't assign a number because you don't know how many eggs are out there,” he said. “We've found nests in six of our parks. We look at all the parks where we have bodies of water. Some of those parks don't have geese problems because the habitat doesn't support nesting — geese really like island nesting.”

And that makes Washington and City parks prime habitat.

Gilmore said he hopes to partner with CGPC in the future.

“As we move through this (COVID-19 crisis) and try to get back to some sort of normal routine, we will try to engage with them again,” he said. “Hopefully we can get them involved with some of our restoration and habitat modification plans.”

Denver Parks updated its Resident Canada Goose Damage Management Program in April, and DeWinter noted it lacks any references to public notifications — a change she finds concerning.

“We take issue with the fact that instead of dealing with the public's concerns, they have simply removed all promises of public engagement from this year's goose management guide,” she said. “That doesn't jibe with Mayor (Michael B.) Hancock's promises of a transparent Denver.”

But Gilmore, who said he received death threats in the wake of last year's culling, said that decision was based on a concern for the safety of parks employees.

“If we deem we need to move forward with culling, I will not tell people that because it puts our staff and the staff at the USDA at risk,” Gilmore said. “We have published the program online; that is a notice.”

He added that culling was probably one of the most difficult decisions he ever had to make.

“I'm a wildlife biologist and I love wildlife. But I also understand as a biologist, the geese population is way out of control,” Gilmore said. “They out-compete other wildlife species. If you walk Wash Park now, you'll see a lot more diversity of waterfowl, and by creating that space, the diversity of birds will increase in a lot of our parks.”

DeWinter hopes Denver Parks will make a different decision on culling this year.

“There's a better way to spend those taxpayer dollars, especially in a pandemic,” she said. “Do you want your taxpayer dollars being spend on killing geese, or buying supplies for our medical providers and food to help keep them going?”

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