Courtroom Wild-Goose Chase

Animal advocates stall government plans to slaughter Canada geese

For the second summer in a row, a federal agency had planned to implement a massive roundup and slaughter of Canada geese in Virginia, where their numbers have risen dramatically in recent years. And that may yet happen.

But for now, at least, the geese have a brief stay of execution, thanks to a June 23 decision by a federal judge in Washington, granting the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and two other animal-advocacy groups a temporary injunction while the court considers a cessation of the controversial program.

US District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly planned to hear additional arguments yesterday.

Had the injunction been withheld, the Wildlife Services Division of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) was prepared to carry out its "capture and euthanasia" program immediately.

The killings, which HSUS says violate the 80-year-old Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA), were set to occur at 14 sites in Virginia between now and late July. This is when the birds lose their feathers and cannot fly, making them vulnerable to capture.

The HSUS, which is headquartered here, is the nation's largest animal-protection organization, with more than 5 million members; 116,000 of them live in Virginia. Joining HSUS in its lawsuit against the government were Citizens for the Preservation of Wildlife, based in Springfield, Va., and the Animal Protection Institute of Sacramento, Calif.

Last year, the Wildlife Services Division rounded up and killed 1,548 Canada geese at 16 locations throughout Virginia after homeowner associations, golf-course managers, businesses, airport managers, and individuals complained the birds were a nuisance, damaging property and possibly constituting a public-health hazard. The main complaint is that the geese defecate on lawns, playing fields, water supplies, and other areas frequented by humans.

The animal-protection groups acknowledge that the birds are messy but say they should not be killed just for that. They argue there are effective, humane, nonlethal ways of dealing with the situation, including habitat modification, harassment techniques, and using trained border collies to keep the geese away from grassy expanses such as golf courses.

"Slaughtering large numbers of Canada geese, or even reducing their population, does nothing to resolve the problem," says Nancy Perry, HSUS director of grass-roots campaigns.

HSUS refutes government claims that the geese spread disease, and it minimizes any property damage they might cause. "There are no documented or substantiated cases of health problems with Canada geese," says Patrice Klein, a wildlife veterinarian with the organization. "It is a nonissue. It is really an aesthetic issue, not a public-health issue."

The case is a complex one, laced with legalisms and fraught with emotion. It also has broad ramifications. Already, a national trend toward rounding up and killing geese is apparent. Three other states - Michigan, Minnesota, and New York - have carried out catch-and-kill programs similar to Virginia's and at least four other states - Wisconsin, Missouri, Washington, and Maryland - have given it serious thought.

The legality of the USDA capture-and-kill program hinges on the permit process embedded in the MBTA, the legislation that Congress enacted in 1918 for an international convention between the US and the United Kingdom for the protection of migratory birds. The US later reached similar conventions with Mexico, Japan, and the former Soviet Union.

HSUS contends that in carrying out the slaughter of the birds without a permit from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, as required under the MBTA, the government is in violation of the treaty. USDA rebuts the charge, citing an exemption given it last year by the Clinton administration, in one particular case involving timber cutting on US Forest Service lands in which nesting Canada geese were unintentionally killed. The government agencies took the exemption to mean that they no longer needed permits to intentionally do away with the birds, if complaints against the creatures were loud enough.

In their lawsuit against the Departments of Agriculture and Interior, the animal-rights groups called for an end to the USDA bird-killing program in Virginia unless they have a valid permit under the MBTA. They say Virginia is the first state to attempt to implement such a program without a permit.

"If Virginia is allowed to use these loopholes, other states may follow suit," Ms. Perry says. "The treaty prohibits anyone from killing migratory birds unless they have followed the regulations with regard to getting permits.

"It is one of the strongest environmental statutes on the books," Perry adds. "The integrity of the MBTA is at stake here."

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