On Monday morning, there were more than 1,500 Canada geese living around Jamaica Bay. By the end of the next day, that number had been cut by about half.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture moved forward with a plan to eliminate the population of Canada geese at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, which many fear are a threat to airplanes flying into and out of nearby JFK Airport.
USDA agents captured a total of 751 geese on Monday and Tuesday between sunrise and noon near the Joseph P. Addabbo Bridge on the north end of Broad Channel. The agency trapped the geese this week because they were rendered “flightless” due to molting of their feathers, which normally occurs in June and July. Without their ability to fly, the geese are easier to round up. Also, all migrating Canada geese are far north by midsummer. They were then moved to a poultry processing plant in Dutchess County where they were euthanized and their meat sent to soup kitchens and food pantries, according to Carol Bannerman, spokeswomen for the USDA’s Wildlife Service and Animal Care office. The process in which the geese are captured and euthanized is termed “culling.”
The move comes after Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) pushed U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, whose agency manages the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, to move forward with removal of the geese after the USDA released its environmental impact study at the beginning of the month.
“We could not afford to sit back and wait for a catastrophe to occur before cutting through bureaucratic red tape between federal agencies,”said Gillibrand. “We are finally taking action to help reduce bird strikes and save lives. I thank Secretary Salazar for his leadership in moving this process forward.”
One thousand of the roughly 1,500 Canada geese that had been living in the refuge and the area surrounding it were targeted for removal by the USDA. Several hundred geese can be seen often on landfill parks along the Brooklyn shoreline, directly below a commonly used flight path for jets landing at JFK. The agency has already culled over 200 Canada geese in the last three years. Don Riepe, northeast chapter president for the American Littoral Society, said those geese are not migratory and were introduced to the bay in the latter half of the last century by fish and gaming agencies. The geese have become “overabundant” around the bay according to the National Park Service and the presence of mowed lawns around Gateway National Recreation Area and on properties in Howard Beach, the Rockaways and Brooklyn have provided geese with a source of food all year round.
“Even though they’re native, they’re kind of misplaced,” Riepe said, adding that migrating geese stop at the refuge in spring and fall, but the 1,500 or so geese that had been living around Jamaica Bay are not migratory and spent most of the time at the wildlife refuge. Besides the threat to planes, the Canada geese also disrupt the ecosystem at the bay, taking away some food supply for smaller birds native to the area. The NPS also warned that resident Canada geese damage salt marshes in Jamaica Bay, many of which were destroyed by pollution and are in the process of being repaired.
Riepe said the removal of the geese is something he and other environmentalists reluctantly support.
“We don’t like it, but we do agree with going along to reduce the numbers,” he said.
It was a flock of Canada geese that brought down US Airways Flight 1549 in January 2009. The plane took off from LaGuardia Airport and was forced to ditch in the Hudson River after both engines failed due to a bird strike. A Delta Airlines jet lost an engine in April taking off from JFK, forcing an emergency landing, after a bird strike. Nobody was hurt in either incident. The type of bird that crippled the Delta jet is not certain, but Riepe said it was not a Canada goose, which leaves him worried about whether or not other birds, especially those native to the bay that can pose a threat to jets may be targeted next.
“What we’re concerned about is the future,” Riepe said. “As the airport continues to expand and more flights come in to JFK, will they move on to other species?”
Birds like the herring gull, and other gull species, the cormorant and the mute swan all call Jamaica Bay home, though the latter is not native to the area and is controlled by the National Park Service. Any of them may be capable of crippling an airplane. Riepe said he wants the federal government to mitigate the bird culling by providing some more funding for the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge or for other projects like marsh restoration. The USDA did not fund the removal of the Canada geese. The money for the project came from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
Despite the removal of the geese, Riepe warned the threat to planes continues because JFK Airport is located along a popular route used by migrating birds. In fact, it is believed to have been migratory Canada geese, not resident ones, that collided with Flight 1549 in 2009.
“Since you have an airport located along a coastal migratory flyway, you’re always going to have an issue,” he said.