Going aloft keeps geese from nibbling fields to nubs

March 05, 2002 12:00 am
Pilot Ken Mendes takes his ultralight over the pastures near the Smith River. When flocks of Aleutian geese settle where they shouldn't, he swoops down and herds them to pastures set aside for their use. (Stephen M. Corley/ The Daily Triplicate).
Pilot Ken Mendes takes his ultralight over the pastures near the Smith River. When flocks of Aleutian geese settle where they shouldn't, he swoops down and herds them to pastures set aside for their use. (Stephen M. Corley/ The Daily Triplicate).

By Laura Brown

Triplicate staff writer

From lofty heights, Ken Mendes maneuvers his 65-horse-power ultralight with a 30-foot wingspan over a world in miniature. Below, the Smith River snakes its way through hundreds of acres of cattle country checkered in varying hues of green.

The small aircraft swoops down, blaring a bullhorn, and a large flock of Aleutian geese lift off. Mendes herds them into the 300-acre corridor set aside for the birds as a safe haven.

Blake Alexandre raises 4,800 dairy cows on 2,500 acres of pasture land which lies in the heart of the preferred grazing area for the geese. Six years ago he started a campaign to manage state parkland that lies adjacent to his and several other farms in the region.

From the air, the 500 acres of state park land is not easily discernible from that of neighboring dairy lands. That is Alexandres goal. He reseeds, irrigates, fertilizes, mows and sends his cows to graze in the fields during the summer months. Management costs for the state lands other then new seed comes completely out of Alexandres pocket.

Its been extremely successful. It took a lot of pressure off, said Alexandre. The feeding lands were so successful that the goose population has more than doubled in five years. I think we are taking really good care of them.

With more geese, came a need for more grazing lands and so a partnership of three dairy farmers, Alexandre, Ferguson and Tedsen was formed. The three dairies donated land to the effort, totaling 300 acres. The area is a long, narrow corridor that provides ample ground for the once-endangered birds.

Getting the geese to the desired location, however, had been a constant dawn to dusk challenge for dairy farmers. Farmers would use 4-wheelers, bicycles, pickups and leg power to chase the birds into the set-aside acreage.

Richard Tryson, who borders Alexandres place and leases 140 acres to him, has used scare tactics by air for two years with good results.

I havent had geese on my place for three years. Its a constant vigil. They adapt to anything you throw at them. You have to keep changing the routine. Variety is the spice of life, said Tryson, owner of Lazy Diamond Nursery and a beef cattle rancher.

This year, Alexandres use of an airborne goose patrol has been a great success. What once took a full-time commitment by four men now takes sporadic hour-length intervals of work by one man. Corralling geese is similar to cattle says Tryson, but on a broader scale.

They have the dynamics of water. They find a hole and they all flow into it. They find an empty field and they come from miles around.

The attempts by farmhands to keep the birds in the allotted lands has preserved 2,000 acres of grazing lands for the cattle. The preferred grass seeds used are annual and perennial forms of Italian rye plus clover that are characterized for their adaptability in high precipitation zones along the North Coast. Although the grasses are fast-growing they are not made to be overgrazed.

Walking past lush, nutrient rich preserved fields, Alexandre makes his way toward the narrow strip of goose territory. They turn it into something that looks like a putting green, said Alexandre, viewing the short cropped grass with distaste.

Because of the constant nibbling by small beaks, residual damage occurs to the grasses making for a slow comeback after the birds departure by early April. Because of the grass weakened state, weeds have more of a potential to thrive. Where non-goose infected areas are harvested six times throughout the year, goose lands wont see a first cutting until June. Reseeding also becomes more frequent.

Alexandre has calculated that he loses $100,000 annually because of the geese. Our hopes are that someday we will be compensated, said Alexandre.

Once a week, farmers on the Goose Committee and officials from Fish and Game meet to discuss concerns. It really breaks my heart that we are spending more on bureaucracy, said Alexandre.

The ultralight flies at alternating altitudes, from 700 feet to low swoops just above the power lines. A collection of different sounding horns is used to startle the birds sending a large honking cloud rising from the fields. With familiarity comes bravery and now that the ultralight has been swooping the skies for two weeks some of the birds have lost their timidity of the machine.

Alexandres knowledge and close relationship with the geese has made him a respected authority with local environmentalists and schools. An Aleutian Goose field trip titled Fields of the Geese will give visitors a firsthand look at Alexandres dairy and the complex interrelationship between dairymen and the birds.

I truly consider myself an environmentalist. We live off the land and have to survive on it in a sustainable way. We are protecting a species and our livelihood at the same time. One of the species we need to protect is humans. A healthy agricultural based ranch helps create a healthy community. Some environmentalists lose sight of that so easily, said Alexandre as the hum of the distant ultralight could be heard intermingling with a chorus of geese.