Why Foster City wants to cull geese
There’s been numerous stories making the headlines revolving the question of how to best live with wildlife in a city. This past summer, Foster City, a city in the San Francisco Bay Area entered the national spotlight because of the uproar it caused amongst residents and readers across the country – the City’s decided on a controversial plan to kill its local geese.
Pros and Cons
One night last July, a small group of residents gather inside Foster City Hall with signs and speeches ready. Their ages range from young adults to parents with kids to older residents.
Once the meeting’s public comment period starts, a line forms.
“Please stop the plan to kill the geese,” says one constituent, “and allow for the whole community to be involved.”
But even in this mostly pro-geese crowd, there are a few residents who express discontent with the birds.
The goose have to go, they shouldn’t be here.
“The goose have to go, they shouldn’t be here.” says another constituent. “My kid has to pick up poop at Bowditch to play football.”
A City in the Bay
Foster City is in the middle of the peninsula, right where the San Mateo-Dumbarton Bridge ends. It’s an affluent waterfront suburb built in the 60s right on top of marshes and landfills where wildlife have congregated.
The water from the bay snakes through the neighborhoods in man-made lagoons and the water flow is controlled through dams.
If you head to the lagoons, like at Leo Ryan Park, you’ll find that the grass is perfectly mowed, and the water has this artificially deep blue tint. You’ll see kids running around the pier, adults taking dance class, and people lounging on benches.
But you’ll also find geese and a lot of their poop. It's all over the grass and sidewalks. And it’s made national media attention. The problem really started with water quality.
Every year, the environmental group Heal the Bay tests out water quality all over the state of California. The beaches with good water quality receive a top grade but those that have problems receive a failing grade.
And in the summer of 2021, Foster City’s three beaches — Erckenbrack Park, Gull Park and Marlin Park— made it on Heal the Bay’s “Beach Bummer" list of top ten beaches with the worst water quality in California.
Because of that report, Foster City hired outside environmental consultants to test the water and figure out what was causing the problem. The report found geese and seagulls bacteria in the water samples, which ultimately led the City to consider a controversial decision.
Into the National Spotlight
“I basically read an article in the local paper that said that the council was going to kill the geese,” says Ann Lee. ”And I thought that was an outrageous reason to kill wildlife.”
Lee is a former professor who retired in Foster City. She wasn’t looking to get into politics. But she learned that the Foster City Council had received a federal permit to kill at least a hundred geese in an effort to solve the water pollution. Lee tried to express her concerns to the council.“I sent multiple emails, and each time it never made it on the record,” says Lee. “So that was when I decided to maybe start a petition to get their attention.”
Lee posted the petition on the app NextDoor and word got around in Foster City quickly. People began showing up to the city council meetings regularly to weigh in.
The Nextdoor posts and public comments caught the attention of the national media. People from the East Coast started calling in to comment, like representatives from the Animal Protection League of New Jersey and a goose removal company in New York.
Amid all this controversy, one thing still wasn’t clear: were the geese the cause of the water pollution? I reached out to Luke Ginger, a water quality scientist with Heal the Bay. Remember: Heal the Bay’s report was kind of what started this whole controversy.
It's not to like shame or demonize these areas but just to focus on them and try to figure out a way to improve them.
“The purpose behind it is to get some action done,'' says Luke Ginger. “It's not to like shame or demonize these areas but just to focus on them and try to figure out a way to improve them.”
Ginger says, when the city hired consultants to look into the problem, they only surveyed one park when they should have surveyed all the parks. The survey found the geese aren’t the only source of pollution for those parks and that pollution isn’t just coming from Foster City.
Since the lagoon exists within a watershed, the source of pollution in man-made lagoons is more than just the water park area. And if the lagoon is dealing with pollution problems, Ginger says the lagoon needs some circulation. “You need some sort of movement of the water. Otherwise, pollution is just going to stick around and not go anywhere.”As for the goose poop in the water, Ginger wouldn’t recommend resorting to culling the geese.
Foster City community members have been calling for the city to use non-lethal options to control the goose population. Some of the options include building a big statue of a hawk or allowing the grass to grow tall instead of mowing it, to scare the geese into thinking there are predators hiding in the grass. It’s a way to approximate a natural ecosystem that used to be here in this former marshland.
But Foster City Mayor Richa Awasthi has said in various city council meetings that city staff have tried all of these options and they don’t work.
Foster City Councilmembers declined to comment for this story. Their Communications Manager said this issue has zapped their resources since it has gotten the attention of national media.
Wildlife in the City
So I reached out to a goose expert, David Drake. He’s a wildlife specialist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and his job is to understand how animals navigate urban landscapes. Drake says when we talk about geese, we’re talking specifically about a species called Canada geese. But there are two populations of Canada geese. One is the migratory population that flies up to Canada in the summertime and then south for the winter. The second population is the resident population—the geese that don’t migrate and hang around the parks all year causing the poop problem.
“There are more geese than the environment can handle,” says Drake. “And typically, you have geese that are over-grazing turf areas.”It turns out in the city of Madison, Wisconsin where David Drake lives, the city has to kill geese every few years to control the population. And there’s always calls from the public to stop this practice.
“It is not just Wisconsin,'' says Drake. “It can stir up controversy, regardless of where it’s occurring.”And he says, if you use a non-lethal technique you’re not solving the problem. You’re just moving it somewhere else.
This is maybe the sad reality of building cities on top of former marshes and building picturesque parks that attract geese while not having natural predators to keep them in check. There is no circle of life happening here.
As of now, the Foster City Council has directed staff to develop a goose management plan for the spring of 2023 that considers both lethal and non-lethal options.