Friday, July 1, 2011

Culling geese

The New York Times reported recently on the generosity shown toward turtles nesting at JFK. Apparently there is a bitter dispute going on in the NYC community about how officials treat geese, however, and a comment had led me to look further into the issue. The comment thread revealed some of this bitterness, and I had wanted to give a fuller response than I could fit into the comment box, so I post it here:
Brian (#47): I appreciate your responding to clarify your position. You seem firm that the geese must be culled. This was not clear from your earlier comment, which didn't even mention culling—in fact, I didn't know about the culling until Ellie's comment prompted me to wonder what she meant by saying that "geese are a whole different story." (So at least one person here did not know what she was talking about.) It seems the debate is, at root, a conflict between moral perspectives on how we interact with the rest of our ecosystem.
As for your implicit accusation that people who object to the culls are mawkish sentimentalists, and that "the real problem" lies with them, I'd like to point out that the New York Magazine article quotes the president of the Humane Society as agreeing that there is a problem (and even helping with the egg-addling) but also criticizing the USDA for being historically inclined to kill animals. He then notes a successful relocation program that took place with gulls near JFK in the 90’s.
Here are some facts from the same article, which I'll assume for argument's sake are correct: in 2010, the geese numbered ~257,000 in NY state. 15,000-20,000 Canada geese currently live year-round in the metro region. Over the past three decades, there have been “as many as” 315 bird-plane collisions each year.  The USDA decided, by methods not described, that a mere 5000 birds is an “acceptable” number.  If they mean to leave 5000 in NY state, that’s quite a massacre they propose; if they mean only in the metro area, that’s still a significant cull. The article doesn’t mention the number of planes that fly over the city, but 300 collisions actually isn’t much—and even if you kill birds that are nesting near the airport, this doesn't do anything to reduce the risk of migrating (non-NY-resident) geese getting sucked into plane engines. In fact, the famous Sullenberger landing in the Hudson River was forced by just such migrating geese.  
Furthermore, it is valid to ask whether culling birds on Riker’s Island and Prospect Park is going to do much to reduce an already-low risk: a report covering 1912-2002 estimated that bird strikes cause 1 human death per 1 billion flying hours. Air travelers face greater danger from a plethora of other possible events. Needless to say, the birds come out much worse.
I have several objections to the culling described in the article, some moral, some practical, and some a mixture of both. The most salient here is the tremendous waste of it all: as the article notes, there are “...alternatives which are probably much cheaper and more environmentally friendly than sending hundreds of adult geese to suffocation chambers, double-bagging their carcasses, and dumping them in a landfill.”  (You know something is morally objectionable when "suffocation chamber" becomes an acceptable euphemism for "gas chamber.") Apparently I’m not the only one troubled by this waste: a June 15 cityroom article in the NY Times informs us that this year, the culled geese are at least going to be sent to slaughterhouses in PA and distributed to food banks. 
One last point. We define “pest” rather arbitrarily as anything that competes with us. Yet humans are responsible for soil degradation and contamination, massive deforestation, the eradication of 50% of ocean-dwelling species in just the past half century, the slow suffocation of trees* and a host of other environmental catastrophes. We have also shown remarkably poor prognostic ability when manipulating species to try to control some small part of nature in one region, which invariably has profound and unpredicted consequences elsewhere.  I’m not sure we can afford to be killing off massive numbers of animals when we have no idea what the effect on the ecosystem will be. In any case, if we wait long enough, the geese will die off on their own through some combination of effects of toxins in the environment and climate change. Then again, so will we. So maybe we should be focusing on bigger problems.

*The entire earth has effectively become a gas chamber for trees: go to Wit's Endclick on links for research about dying trees, and get very, very depressed. 

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