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Goose herding taking its toll?

An ultralight pilot chases some Aleutian geese to fields where they can feed, saving fields farmers rely on from the ravenous hords. The practice may be having some unforeseen effects. (Stephen M. Corley/ The Daily Triplicate).
An ultralight pilot chases some Aleutian geese to fields where they can feed, saving fields farmers rely on from the ravenous hords. The practice may be having some unforeseen effects. (Stephen M. Corley/ The Daily Triplicate).

By Laura Brown

Triplicate staff writer

This year, a surprising shift in the number of geese resting in Humboldt County has caused biologists to wonder if hazing activities in Del Norte are causing the birds to go elsewhere.

"It's really unusual to have a new staging area develop," said biologist Kerry Ross, working for California Coastal Conservancy and U.S. Fish and Wildlife. Ross has been the official "goose counter" in Del Norte county for the past two years.

Until the last few weeks, the largest percentage of birds on the North Coast have been feeding on the dairy ranches in the Arcata Bottoms, the Loleta Bottoms and Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Now that number has evened to a nearly 50-50 ratio with the last count of birds at 19,000 in Humboldt and 18,590 at the Castle Rock fly-off yesterday morning. Two-thousand-seven-hundred birds have been counted flying off Goat Island off the coast of Brookings, Ore.

Last year, three collars documented that the birds were reversing their migrations from Crescent City southbound. Ross said that figure is slightly skewed because he was the only one collecting data on the birds. This year, two other researchers are studying the new migratory patterns and have found five birds so far that came from Crescent City.

They have also spotted 1,000 birds in separate flocks travelling south over the ocean.

Although evidence linking the exact cause of the birds' switch to a new southern home is still vague, Ross believes a large contributing factor is the amount of "hazing" that occurs in Del Norte County. Local dairy farmers are using ultralight aircraft to herd flocks off private lands and onto adjacent California State Park fields which are leased for cattle grazing.

Lush, fertile cow pastures in Smith River are delicatessens to the Aleutian Canada goose. The food value of the high-quality and well-fertilized grasses in these fields far surpasses the grasses set aside on neighboring state and park lands that get little management beyond the occasional mowing and sporadic fertilizing.

Ross said hazing causes the birds to stay in the air and burn up their fuel reserves. Crescent City is one of the prime areas birds come to feed and restore their energy before making their transoceanic trip to their breeding habitat in the Aleutian Islands. "If they don't make their reserves, they simply won't make the flight," said Ross.

Last year, the geese prolonged their stay in Del Norte two weeks longer then usual. Ross predicts a similar extended stay this year with a late April departure.

Government and landowner representatives have been coming to the table for a number of years to try to find better ways to grow greener grass for the benefit of the geese.

"If they are going to boost the nutrition value of government lands, farmers are the first to go to," said Ross. Making the park and state land more enticing to the geese would take some of the pressure off farmers, but it is unknown how it might affect other wildlife in the area.

"They don't want to manage for just one species," said biologist Zachary Larson who will be giving a tour of the area during the Aleutian Goose Festival.

Another possibility, to alleviate some of the farmers' headaches, is to supplement the goose diet by feeding them grains.

The increase in goose traffic in Humboldt County is causing tension among farmers, similar to that felt by Del Norte landholders.

"They're running out of options. They're getting fed up with nothing getting done," Ross said.

By Laura Brown

Triplicate staff writer

This year, a surprising shift in the number of geese resting in Humboldt County has caused biologists to wonder if hazing activities in Del Norte are causing the birds to go elsewhere.

"It's really unusual to have a new staging area develop," said biologist Kerry Ross, working for California Coastal Conservancy and U.S. Fish and Wildlife. Ross has been the official "goose counter" in Del Norte county for the past two years.

Until the last few weeks, the largest percentage of birds on the North Coast have been feeding on the dairy ranches in the Arcata Bottoms, the Loleta Bottoms and Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Now that number has evened to a nearly 50-50 ratio with the last count of birds at 19,000 in Humboldt and 18,590 at the Castle Rock fly-off yesterday morning. Two-thousand-seven-hundred birds have been counted flying off Goat Island off the coast of Brookings, Ore.

Last year, three collars documented that the birds were reversing their migrations from Crescent City southbound. Ross said that figure is slightly skewed because he was the only one collecting data on the birds. This year, two other researchers are studying the new migratory patterns and have found five birds so far that came from Crescent City.

They have also spotted 1,000 birds in separate flocks travelling south over the ocean.

Although evidence linking the exact cause of the birds' switch to a new southern home is still vague, Ross believes a large contributing factor is the amount of "hazing" that occurs in Del Norte County. Local dairy farmers are using ultralight aircraft to herd flocks off private lands and onto adjacent California State Park fields which are leased for cattle grazing.

Lush, fertile cow pastures in Smith River are delicatessens to the Aleutian Canada goose. The food value of the high-quality and well-fertilized grasses in these fields far surpasses the grasses set aside on neighboring state and park lands that get little management beyond the occasional mowing and sporadic fertilizing.

Ross said hazing causes the birds to stay in the air and burn up their fuel reserves. Crescent City is one of the prime areas birds come to feed and restore their energy before making their transoceanic trip to their breeding habitat in the Aleutian Islands. "If they don't make their reserves, they simply won't make the flight," said Ross.

Last year, the geese prolonged their stay in Del Norte two weeks longer then usual. Ross predicts a similar extended stay this year with a late April departure.

Government and landowner representatives have been coming to the table for a number of years to try to find better ways to grow greener grass for the benefit of the geese.

"If they are going to boost the nutrition value of government lands, farmers are the first to go to," said Ross. Making the park and state land more enticing to the geese would take some of the pressure off farmers, but it is unknown how it might affect other wildlife in the area.

"They don't want to manage for just one species," said biologist Zachary Larson who will be giving a tour of the area during the Aleutian Goose Festival.

Another possibility, to alleviate some of the farmers' headaches, is to supplement the goose diet by feeding them grains.

The increase in goose traffic in Humboldt County is causing tension among farmers, similar to that felt by Del Norte landholders.

"They're running out of options. They're getting fed up with nothing getting done," Ross said.

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