Sound of geese stirs dread among many farmers

Capital Press file photo Canada geese make their way through a field looking for food. Senate Bill 622 directs the task force to study how to mitigate damage geese inflict on Oregon farms.

By MITCH LIES

Capital Press

Every autumn, about the time corn silage harvest is winding down, Marie Gadotti begins to hear geese returning to the Willamette Valley from their summer habitat in Alaska.

Far from triggering a celebratory emotion, the sound triggers dread.

"When you start hearing that sound in the fall, it's just like a guy breaking into your house," Gadotti said. "You think, 'Oh my gosh, I've got to go out there,' because you don't know what field they are going to hit."

Gadotti and other members of a goose task force lawmakers formed last year to mitigate goose damage on Oregon farms, are looking at short-term solutions, such as increasing hunting privileges, and long-term solutions, such as lowering the federal target number for Canada cacklers.

The 250,000 target number for Canada cacklers -- a species that makes up the majority of geese in the Northwest -- was adopted in 1984 under an agreement between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the states of Alaska, Washington, Oregon and California and native Alaskans.

Increasing the number of hunting days is important, farmers say, not so much because of the impact on populations, but because it moves geese.

The task force plans to bring recommendations to the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission at the commission's June meeting, in time for the commission to ask the Pacific Flyway Council to increase hunting privileges this fall.

Geese cause upwards of $14 million of damage annually to Oregon crops, according to a 1997 survey from the Oregon Agricultural Statistics Service. And that doesn't count money spent trying to prevent crop loss.

The birds feed on plants, crush plants and increase weed infestation by bringing weed seeds into fields.

"There's a joke in the farming community," Gadotti said: "If you know your neighbor is gone, you move the geese onto their field, because they're not there to protect their crops.

"We joke about it," she said. "But it's true."

In many cases, farmers have abandoned fall-planted crops in favor of lower-value spring planted crops because geese will take out from one-third to one-half a crop's value during the long winter.

"We have ground we can't plant in the fall," Gadotti said.

This year, because spring came late, the ground isn't getting planted at all, she said.

Tack on the fact that farmers are restricted from treating for voles during winter months for fear bait will kill geese, and you've got an idea just how damaging geese are to Oregon farmers.

"If the crop isn't getting eaten from the top, it's getting eaten from the bottom by the voles," Gadotti said. "And it's all because of this goose problem."

Gadotti, from Scappoose, began having problems with geese in the early 1980s, about the time the state imposed goose-hunting restrictions. The restrictions, which remain in place, were instituted to protect the dusky Canada goose.

Dusky populations crashed after a 1964 earthquake damaged their Alaskan habitat and opened the birds to predation from the arctic fox, gulls and other animals.

Today, officials estimate the dusky population has dipped to 6,700 birds.

Hunting restrictions also are in place to protect the cackling Canada geese, a food source for native Alaskans.

Hunters are prohibited from harvesting more than two cackling Canada geese per day during the 55 days they are allowed to hunt each year in the Willamette Valley.

Federal officials estimate about 180,000 cackling Canada geese winter in Oregon each year -- about 70,000 below the target number.

Several other species also inhabit Oregon, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Bob Trost. Aleutian Canada geese spend winters near Tillamook, Trost said, and Wrangelß· Island snow geese and Ross' geese winter in Oregon in increasing numbers.

Also, resident geese inhabit the state year-round.

"There are just way too many geese," Gadotti said. "We can argue about the different species and different numbers forever, but the big picture is there are too many geese."

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