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Tuesday, November 25, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 22.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Madison to kill up to 350 Canada geese
Critics say officials embellished the public health threat of goose poop
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The city Parks Department is moving ahead with plans to round up and kill Canada geese in four city parks and along the Wingra Creek shoreline, Isthmus has learned.

Parks Superintendent Kevin Briski didn't respond to numerous inquiries about the plan, but a reliable source confirms that the "roundup" -- as the mass kill is euphemistically called -- will likely occur when the geese are molting and unable to fly, making them easier to net.

The kill permit allows for euthanizing up to 350 of the geese.

According to mayoral aide Katie Crawley, parks targeted this year for lethal control include Olin-Turville, Brittingham, Goodman and Vilas, in addition to the Wingra Creek shoreline. Crawley also says that city employees will not take part in killing the geese. Employees with the Federal Fish and Wildlife Service will handle that.

"The goal," she says, "is to make the water quality safe so families and kids can enjoy the beaches."

This lethal control approach is an effort to prevent water contamination and beach closures due to excessive amounts of goose poop, which some say contains a virulent strain of E. coli.

However, critics of the controversial plan say the city has misrepresented data suggesting that E. coli found in water samples collected in 2003 came from goose feces. They believe alternative methods of controlling the goose population ought to be tried first.

"Alternatives do work, but there's no will to make that happen," says Stacy Taeuber, who sat on the now defunct Vilas Park Waterfowl Advisory Group. "Unless you're willing to kill and kill and kill every year, you have to look at these other things."

Taeuber says making habitats unfriendly to geese would force the animals to find a spot where no one cares they're there. At Warner Park, for example, alternative approaches are being tried, including allowing grass to grow tall, harassing the geese with dogs and oiling their eggs so they won't hatch. But Crawley says the logistics of "sending staff out to oil eggs" are costly and complicated.

Ald. Mark Clear, who sits on the Board of Park Commissioners, supports the goose roundup, which the board approved last month. Initially, a private citizen offered to donate the $5,000 the kills will cost, but rescinded the offer when the city couldn't guarantee his anonymity.

"It's a fairly unusual situation with an invasive species that has no natural predators in our ecosystem," says Clear. "They're not migratory and have settled in and made the parks their home. Many of our beach closures are directly related to poop."

Opponents of the roundup take issue with that claim. They say the city hasn't proven that the bacteria blamed for at least 84 beach closures last year came from goose droppings. Officials from the Madison Department of Health weren't immediately available for comment.

Lori Chadli, a Madison resident and outspoken critic of lethal control, says the more likely culprit is stormwater runoff.

Chadli believes the geese are a nuisance misrepresented by officials as a public health threat. "Where is the risk?" she asks. "People like to blame them, because they see the droppings, but there's no evidence."

According to a 2011 report (PDF) prepared by Russ Hefty, conservation resource supervisor with the city Parks Department, seven of 42 water samples collected in 2003 tested positive for a virulent strain of E. coli. This same strain, Hefty noted, was found in 50% of the goose fecal samples collected.

But Taeuber accuses Hefty, who wouldn't comment for this story, of exaggerating the health risk by misrepresenting the data. She says the numbers he cited were "presumptive positives."

Further testing of these samples, she says, showed that only one of those water samples contained a dangerous form of E. coli, and that it's impossible to prove where it came from. Even more, she says, additional testing done on the goose fecal samples all came back negative for the virulent E. coli strain.

"They misstated the evidence," Taeuber says. "They used the E. coli thing as a scare tactic. There is no record of anyone ever getting E. coli from a goose. To imply a direct threat of that disease is disingenuous at best. I said, "If I'm wrong, explain it to me, but they never did."

The Board of Park Commissioners has the final say on the matter. Though Clear supports killing the geese, he does take issue with Isthmus reporting on it. "It's something I believe should be kept relatively quiet," he says. "Crowds of humans wouldn't be conducive to the work the Parks Department needs to do."

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