Becci Gindin-Clarke: Killing snow geese is not the solution
On November 19, a Richmond city councillor suggested a cull of the snow geese that migrate into the Fraser River delta each year. Their population has swelled to about 70,000, increasing in part because climate change has resulted in an earlier snow melt in their Arctic breeding grounds. Extra nesting space and warmer temperatures mean that more geese lay more eggs and fewer geese die of starvation or exposure. Meanwhile, we’ve continued to encroach upon their rapidly-shrinking migration grounds here in British Columbia.
Before we talk about the proposed cull, let’s talk about the birds themselves. There are three main populations of snow geese: eastern, central, and western. All are protected under the federal Migratory Birds Convention Act. Every year, the western population leaves their breeding grounds in the Arctic to reach the estuaries of our province, flying an astounding 5,000 kilometres at up to 95 kilometres per hour. The geese mate for life, and hatching occurs in mid July. In just three weeks, goslings can walk—or waddle, really—with their parents, leaving the nest area to find more suitable brood-rearing grounds rich in the roots and tubers that they love to eat.
By the time the young geese are old enough to fly to southern British Columbia, they can be identified by their greyish plumage and dark bills and feet. And since they usually stay with their parents for two or three years, Richmond’s residents and visitors are able to see them travelling and feeding in small family groups. The birds have an average lifespan of 10 to 20 years, with the oldest snow goose on record living 27.5 years before he was shot in Texas in 1999. One more fact: scientists have found that polar bears, struggling to survive in an Arctic world severely affected by climate change, have begun to eat the eggs of breeding waterfowl—specifically those of snow geese—when they are unable to find enough ringed seals. While this dietary adjustment could be catastrophic for some bird species, snow geese will likely just experience a population decline.
Richmond has worked to control the geese via humane methods, and we must urge them to continue. Volunteers with dogs have been enlisted to chase them out of fields, and some local farmers participate in the “Greenfields” program, planting grass cover to accommodate the geese’s diet. Councillor Harold Steves, who proposed the cull, has also suggested the possibility of stopping port development in Delta, a venture which continues to consume necessary farmland, as well as creating additional offshore habitat for the birds in the form of a sea berm outside the dike. The construction of a sea berm would be beneficial to us too, since it would mitigate damage caused by rising sea levels.
The circumstances which have led to an increased snow goose population—namely, climate change and habitat destruction—are our fault, not the geese’s, and it is our responsibility to deal with their increased numbers in a humane and sustainable way. Culling is neither of these. It is cruel and will inevitably result in many geese being wounded but not killed. It is a short-term solution that would necessitate repeated culls year after year in order to be even remotely effective, thus exposing the residents of Richmond to unnecessary danger as well as the sight of dead and injured birds.
Certainly, the tens of thousands of people who visit Richmond every year in order to witness the remarkable spectacle of thousands of snow geese would prefer a solution that reflects the respect we all have for the natural beauty of British Columbia.
Becci Gindin-Clarke is the research and information director for Liberation B.C.