It's the funnest job I've ever had," says Simon Westwood. "I'm outdoors, spend a lot of time with my dog, and see a lot. I wasn't much of a birder before, but now I notice a lot more out here. The other day I watched an eagle hunting a gosling, but every time it dove out of the air to grab the goose, wind blew it off course. That was interesting."
Not only interesting, but this National Geographic vignette of natural population control might have aided his work. That's because Simon and his personable pooch, Betty, represent the frontline of the Resort Municipality of Whistler's Geese Management Plan. They won't remove geese from the wild as an eagle might, but employ tactics that encourage migratory geese to continue past Whistler en route to more typical far-north destinations. Those that do end up summering here are then managed by Simon, Betty and others for unsavoury impacts that might affect community and visitor satisfaction.
I've joined Simon and Betty — charmingly paired in high visibility safety vests — as they begin their nightly route through Whistler's parks at Rainbow. Here, while Betty tears off in search of geese to haze, Simon would normally winch a series of waist-high, black-plastic curtain fences across the beach area. However, these are already hung. Inclement weather — day-long wind and rain — meant no need to roll back the fences that morning, a rare occurrence. As we stroll the line, Simon stops to tighten a cable here and there. With the unanchored plastic flapping in a still-strong breeze, it's clear that should any animal so choose, it could pass right under. "The fencing isn't as much about physically keeping geese out as providing a visual deterrent when viewed from water level," notes Simon.
The Canada Goose, Branta canadensis, is problematic in many places around the world, and de facto invasive where it has been introduced in Europe and South America. Where numbers are out of control in urban areas within its traditional North American range, it's deemed to be "irruptive" — a functional equivalent of invasive that likewise implies an unnatural quantitative impact to these areas, as seen with deer, raccoons and other wildlife.
The problem begins when accessible food sources like planted grass, plus a lack of predators, make urban areas bordering water permanently attractive to otherwise migratory geese. Impacts of too many geese include habitat loss or degradation, noise, aggressive behaviour (both territorial and food-scrounging), and water-quality issues that threaten both wildlife and human health. Geese feces contain parasites like the one that causes swimmer's itch (cercarial dermatitis), as well as cryptosporidium and giardia; bacteria like campylobacter, salmonella and various coliforms are also common. Cryptosporidium in a water supply can cause disease: the microscopic parasite was responsible for a 1993 outbreak in Milwaukee, Wis., in which 400,000 became ill and 100 died; a 1996 outbreak in Kelowna sickened 10,000. That's serious shit, so to speak.
Though Whistler rings in low on the infestation scale compared to Toronto, New York and London, to name a few big-city examples, our artificially inflated goose population still poses health, environmental, and economic impacts. In June 2015, a daily average 34 kilograms of goose poop was removed from Rainbow and the beach closed for swimming due to unsafe levels of coliforms in the water.
Geese don't really like wind, which is why the only ones we see that evening hunker in reeds at the end of the lake. Many, in fact, nest in these north-end marshes near the entrance to the River of Golden Dreams. After securing the park, we continue on our way, making similar check-ins at The Point Sailing Centre, as well as Alpha Lake, Wayside and Lakeside Parks.
As we close a fence left open for watercraft concessions at Lakeside, a barely visible string of geese hovers offshore in the distance. "They're just waiting to head into land," says Simon. "Often it's right next door here at a monster home construction site where there's plenty of shoreline, or the houses and docks next to it."
As with many jobs, the Goose Busters' work swims upstream against a current of human issues. Although Whistler's parks are a lot cleaner, the swimmer's itch issue is hard to shake when other lakeside residents don't keep geese from their docks and rafts; when these structures become covered in poop, owners tend to sweep it into the lake along with its parasite load. While that's a problem for swimmers, Simon and Betty face their own hazards.
At Wayside, where campers squat in a van in the parking lot, Betty engages in the peculiar canid pleasure of rolling in excrement deposited in the woods behind the van (unfortunately human). As we walk her back to the lake for a wash off, we come face to face with a coyote. Was it attracted by the food and garbage of the campers? Or was it stalking Betty?
"That was weird," says a wide-eyed Simon. Indeed.
If there's something strange in your neighbourhood / who you gonna call? If there's something weird and it don't look good / who you gonna call?
Next week — Goose Busters II: the Morning Shift