BY Gary B. Gray
Bristol Herald Courier
BRISTOL, Tenn. – Since late June, very few – if any – Canada geese are using Middlebrook Lake.
That statement came in mid-August from a U.S. Department of Agriculture administrator after the relocation from April through June of 122 Canada geese and euthanization of 26 others at or near the scenic neighborhood lake.
The Middlebrook Homeowner’s Association contracted with the USDA in March to address an overpopulation problem at the lake in the King College area. It cited easy access to the lake, an absence of natural predators, limited hunting and supplemental feeding as causes.But the fix is temporary, and the probability is high that the honking, winged visitors will return to the 29-acre lake in even greater numbers, said Wallace Coffey, former editor of the Tennessee Journal of Ornithology and a 43-year observer of the species.
"The USDA can’t trap or euthanize 150 geese at Middlebrook and hope to make a real difference, except for the temporary satisfaction of those who live there," he said. "I can tell you, I saw a flock of 500 Canada geese up around Exit 7 just last week.
"It’s hard to say what’s right and what’s wrong. But it’s easy to say what’s efficient and inefficient. This is inefficient, and it’s typical of the USDA."
The geese are not scarce in Tennessee. Nor is it unusual for them to be rounded up and removed from areas such as Middlebrook Lake.
"Everybody wants the birds to be taken somewhere else – we’re running out of somewhere else," said Keith Blanton, a USDA Wildlife Services district supervisor for eastern Tennessee and Kentucky. "As far as efficiency – the reason we euthanized the 26 birds was because we were only able to gather three to four on some days. We would have had to drive 100 miles each day to relocate the birds, and that was not an efficient method."
Blanton, who headed the roundup at Middlebrook, said the problem has been "chronic" and the action to remove them was not a sudden whim on the part of the homeowner’s association.
The geese population has increased dramatically over the past few years, and Tennessee is one of the only remaining states to allow the euthanization of Canada geese, he added.
The USDA’s Wildlife Services Web site lists its "Top 5 Major Assistance Activities." Its top priority: "Protecting public safety and property from Canada goose, pigeon starling, blackbird, and other wildlife damage."
"Canada geese are responsible for 20 percent of all requests for assistance in Tennessee," and concerns include feces-contaminated water and aggressive geese that attack children and the elderly, according to the Web site.
"It is our understanding from the USDA that the removal is temporary and more Canada geese will make Middlebrook their home over the next few years," said Deborah Garritson, MHA president. "After the geese were removed, migratory geese did, once again, make Middlebrook their temporary home. We contacted the USDA and they assured us that these were, in fact, migratory geese and if residents do not feed them they will continue their migration."
The USDA signed an agreement with the association in late March to "manage the nuisance goose problems" at the lake.
In a four-month period, the USDA’s Wildlife Services captured 122 birds, banded them with numbered metal tags, and released them about 100 miles to the south.
During the same time, the agency drugged 23 geese so they could be easily captured and euthanized. An additional three geese of other species also were euthanized.
Agency employees also searched for active nests and destroyed 28 eggs to help prevent population growth.
In 2005, the homeowner’s association instructed Middlebrook residents Norman and Dolly McPeek to stop feeding wild game and to clear their overgrown garden or face legal action.
The association informed the McPeeks in a letter that complaints had been lodged against them and their behavior encouraged the overpopulation of geese and ducks.
The couple admitted to a love for the birds and said they fed the geese and other species long before the decision was made to lower their numbers.
But they have since cleaned up their garden and erected a fence to keep out wildlife, Norman McPeek said.
"They did a good job of relocating the 122 geese, but if they’d done a little better planning, they wouldn’t have had to kill any of them," McPeek said Wednesday. "The geese are back. There are already more than 100 of them out there right now."
Garritson said the association cannot please everyone, but it was their intent "to do our best to make Middlebrook a great place to live."
"Mr. McPeek is indeed an animal lover, and we respect that," she said. "The board has not heard complaints about the geese removal except from Mr. McPeek, who has written us five letters on the subject."
J. Lee Strader is not a member of the association, but she lives near the lake and said she also had concerns about the birds being killed.
"We have 10 acres near the lake, and we had noticed there weren’t any geese around," she said. "What none of us understood was why would you build a lake that’s attractive to wildlife and then want to get rid of it?"
It’s not the first time overpopulation of the birds has created a stir in the region. In February 2005, just months before the McPeeks received a complaint about feeding the birds, town leaders in Saltville, Va., declared open season on Canada geese – in town near a large salt marsh.
Stacy Hayton, Saltville’s assistant police chief, told the Herald Courier at the time, "Hopefully, it will be worth it all. It just depends on how much the birds learned."
The hunt drew a lot of attention, publicity and protests from animal lovers and animal rights groups, but was accomplished without any confrontation. Still, the problem of too many geese and humans sharing the same space remains.
Hunters did thin the flock for a while, but the birds will thrive and return to Saltville, Bristol and other locations, Coffey said.
"The same thing happens out at Steele Creek Park and other places," Coffey added. "In 2000, there were about 30,000 Canada geese in Northeast Tennessee. And my guess is there’s a lot more here now than that."
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