hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues May 2019


Plan to control geese sparks debate

In the Berkshires, some see nuisance, others see nature



Wide lawns along the shore of Richmond Pond have become a popular summer gathering spot for Canada geese. Some local landowners have come up with a plan to reduce the numbers of geese they say have become a nuisance, but others who live near the pond say the plan goes too far. John Townes photo


Wide lawns along the shore of Richmond Pond have become a popular summer gathering spot for Canada geese. Some local landowners have come up with a plan to reduce the numbers of geese they say have become a nuisance, but others who live near the pond say the plan goes too far. John Townes photo


Contributing writer


A plan to reduce the number of Canada geese at Richmond Pond, which involves blocking the development of goose eggs and using barking dogs to scare away the birds, is drawing a backlash from some neighbors who say it goes too far.

Proponents of the plan say they’re attempting to use techniques that are humane and safe, and that something needs to be done to control the pond’s goose population. One test of public support for the plan will come on May 15, when voters at Richmond’s annual town meeting decide whether to contribute $1,240 to the effort.

Last year, after experiencing what they considered a marked increase in the number of geese nesting in the area, several property owners along the 220-acre pond, which straddles the border of Richmond and Pittsfield, began investigating ways to reduce the numbers of geese.
“The influx of geese last year was out of control,” said John Mead, the executive director of Lakeside Christian Camp & Retreat Center, which is on the Pittsfield side of the pond.
“It was very disruptive,” Mead said. “The worst impact was the goose droppings, which constantly required hours to clean up. We were concerned that it would develop into a health hazard and contaminate the pond.”

So he and several other property owners researched goose management techniques and developed a proposal for curbing the pond’s goose population this spring and summer.
“We selected the methods that seemed to be the most effective and humane to gradually reduce the number of geese with the least impact on the environment,” Mead said.

They submitted a proposal to the Richmond Pond Association, a nonprofit group formed in 2000 to preserve and protect the pond’s environmental quality and recreational character through water monitoring, vegetation control and other initiatives. The association’s board voted in February to support the proposal.

But the plan lately has drawn a range of criticism and opposition from other residents of the area. Some critics have concerns about specific aspects of the plan, while others say the overall effort is unnecessary and potentially damaging to the environment.

“Geese are not a problem on the pond,” said Jennifer Sabino, who has lived in a house on the shore for 23 years and is strongly opposed to the plan.

“The pond is a complex environment,” Sabino said. “Everything you do on the pond affects everything else. This plan is interfering with nature in a way that could have many unforeseen negative consequences on the pond and ecosystem here.”


Three-pronged effort
The plan to reduce the goose population at Richmond Pond is to be carried out by a contractor, Wild Goose Chase NE, a company based just across the state line in New Lebanon, N.Y. The firm has been providing goose-control services since 2002 to clients with properties that include parks, beaches, golf courses, airports and corporate campuses.

The plan includes three basic strategies to reduce the goose population over the season – covering the early nesting period before the eggs hatch, a period in midsummer when the young geese are unable to fly, and the late summer as they mature.

One aspect of the plan involves habitat modification using fences, tall grass, shrubbery and other temporary or permanent physical barriers to make areas where geese nest or congregate less inviting to them.

Another component is early season egg addling, in which newly laid eggs are covered with cooking oil to seal off the interior oxygen supply and prevent them from hatching.
A third element is “hazing,” using dogs to chase off the geese by barking and using herding techniques. This includes taking the dogs onto the lake in boats and also allowing them to patrol the shorelines.

“Our approach is basically a middle road between doing nothing and more intensive actions such as killing the geese,” said Eric Johnson, whose family operates Wild Goose Chase. “It’s designed to be humane and have the least impact possible on the environment and community.”
Johnson said this method is approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the state Department of Environmental Conservation in New York and the Humane Society of the United States.

He added that Wild Goose Chase uses a specific method the company calls “herd chasing,” which uses trained border collies.

“We want to protect the safety of the geese,” he said. “The border collies are trained to chase them away safely. … It’s similar to the herding of livestock.”


Opposition grows
Participation in the Richmond Pond plan is voluntary, and individual property owners can choose not to take part in it. However, proponents say they are trying to encourage collaboration to manage the pond’s goose population effectively.

“This requires a unified approach to be successful,” Mead said. “If we all work together, we can convince the geese to go elsewhere. But without widespread participation, the geese will just move from one section of the pond to another.”

But critics say the number of opponents is substantial.
“Many residents here are against it,” said Tom Grizzy, a Richmond constable who lives on the shore and owns land along a channel than feeds into the pond. “I’m hearing about it all the time from people who think this is a bad idea.”

The most controversial aspects of the plan are the egg addling and the use of dogs to haze the geese.

“Egg addling is cruel, because it’s basically smothering young geese before hatching, and it is destructive to their family structure” Sabino said. “The use of dogs could also chase away other species besides geese. It also means that people on the shore will have to listen to barking dogs on a regular basis.”

The actual extent of opposition and support for the plan within the community is difficult to gauge.
More than 400 people have signed an online petition, on the website and Facebook page of It’s Pittsfield Tonight (itspittsfieldtonight.com), opposing the use of dogs.

Michael Daly, the creator of the website, which covers local life and issues, said that although the signers include people outside of the region, more than half of them live on the pond on nearby.
One indication of public sentiment will be the result of Richmond’s May 15 town meeting vote on supporting the plan.

Several large property owners who support the effort have agreed to cover half of the project’s anticipated cost of about $12,500. The balance will be covered by the Richmond Pond Association, which is funded by annual dues from four community associations and the owners of other property around the pond as well as individual donations.

Public money is involved because the municipalities of Richmond and Pittsfield both are members of the association. The town meeting warrant in Richmond asks whether voters support using $1,240 from the town’s free-cash fund to support Richmond’s share of the project’s cost.


A zone of transition
The controversy at Richmond Pond involves issues that are familiar to other waterfront communities in the region, but it also stems from the pond’s location in a transition area between the large urban center of Pittsfield and the more rural environment of Richmond.

Geese often are considered nuisance animals when large number of them congregate. They are territorial and their behavior can be intimidating, and the presence of their droppings can pose public health as well as aesthetic concerns.

The techniques outlined in the pond association’s plan are not unusual, and other communities trying to rid themselves of goose problems have pursued tougher measures, including killing the animals.

H Heusmann, a waterfowl biologist and project leader with the Massachusetts Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the goose population fluctuates over time for various reasons, but since 1991 there has been an overall increase in the state from 25,000 to about 40,000.
“However in recent years the number has stabilized or even been reduced overall,” he said. “Nevertheless, it may be a problem in specific areas where large numbers of them congregate.”
There are two basic categories of Canada geese -- resident and migrant geese. Flocks of migrant geese move from the far north to the south seasonally and visit this area on a temporary basis as they migrate, while resident populations nest regularly in certain areas within this region.
Heusmann said resident geese do not migrate long distances for the winter but may temporarily leave the area for open water in places such as Long Island Sound.
Heusmann noted that Canada geese are not native to this region.

“The resident population here are all descendants of geese that were brought here and raised as hunting decoys before the 1930s, when that became illegal,” he said.

The plan for reducing the goose population at Richmond Pond is controversial in part because of the pond’s location near wetlands.

The technique of geese hazing, for example, is more commonly used in settings that are either open land or include ponds and lakes that are artificial or are not directly connected to wetlands.
Richmond Pond also is surrounded by development along its shoreline, including individual homes and neighborhoods and a large planned-condominium community called South Pond Farm. Its shoreline also includes camps, a public beach and a boat launch.

But unlike a pond in an urbanized setting, it is also directly adjacent and connected to a large natural area with a sensitive ecosystem of wetlands, smaller ponds, streams and forest. The pond itself provides a diverse habitat for vegetation, fish and wildlife, including bald eagles, rare varieties of mergansers, heron and osprey.


Environmental risks?
Daly, who grew up in the area and lives on the shoreline, said he became involved in the issue because of his lifelong interest in conservation and outdoor recreation. A nature photographer, he has spent the past several years researching and producing an in-depth documentary about Richmond Pond and its environment.

“I’m not some wild-eyed environmental fanatic who opposes everything,” he said. “I believe in responsible and balanced conservation. Personally I’m not opposed to the idea of goose management or the use of dogs in general. But in the specific setting and environment of Richmond Pond, I believe the use of dogs to chase the geese is neither effective nor responsible. It’s extreme and risky.”

He and Sabino both emphasized that the wildlife and bird population around the pond is continually evolving and changing naturally, with new species arriving and others declining or disappearing because of predators and other conditions.

“This is a natural ecosystem that maintains its own balance, and I’ve seen many changes since I first moved here,” Sabino said. “But when you alter that artificially, who knows what that will lead to? If you bring in barking dogs to chase away geese, what other birds are being chased off the pond? How will that impact other natural processes?”

The result, she said, could be a slippery slope that results in other human interventions that, in turn, further eliminate wildlife.

Sabino said there are less disruptive alternatives.
“If someone is bothered by geese on their property, they have options,” she said. “Geese are attracted to open spaces, and if someone has a large lawn, they can use plantings or fencing to discourage them. They also should take responsibility to clean up geese droppings themselves.”
Her reference to large lawns reflects another issue at Richmond Pond – one of gentrification. Traditionally the pond has been the site of modest primary homes or vacation cabins for people who live full time in the surrounding area. But in recent years it has attracted more affluent buyers of second homes, many of whom spend of their time in the major metropolitan areas of the Northeast.

This has raised concerns that local residents may be displaced from the shoreline over time, and it also has resulted in a wider range of views about how the lake should be managed – and to what ends.

“Some people come here for a few months in the summer and just want Richmond Pond to be a big swimming pool rather than a part of the natural ecosystem,” Daly said. “We’ve got to find a middle ground.”

Mead said the association’s plans for controlling geese will be evaluated and adjusted as the effort goes forward.

“We’ll monitor it as we go along and review what worked and what didn’t at the end of the season,” he said. “Ideally it would be great for everyone if what happened last year turns out to be a fluke, and we don’t have to do this again.”


Editor’s note: Jennifer Sabino, a source quoted in this story, is the sister of Susan Sabino, a freelance photographer whose work appears in some issues of the Hill Country Observer.