ALPENA – Along Lake Huron, the sunrise view from the shoreline here is spectacular.
Well-groomed grass flows into the beach and then the lake. It’s perfect for residents.
Perfect too, for Canada geese. And that makes the shoreline far from spectacular for everyone else.
Alpena is engaged in a long-running battle with a bird that was nearly extinct in the early 1960s. Now, the bird is nearly ubiquitous, bringing mountains of poop and attitude.
“It was killing us trying to keep things clean,” said Don Gilmet, Alpena’s building official.
It’s a familiar problem. The overly aggressive birds are driving folks crazy from Hillsdale to Munising, making them a unique nature success story, albeit an annoying one.
Some cities recruit Michigan officials to relocate the geese. Others collect and destroy eggs during breeding season, hire dogs to scatter the flocks or us fake cutouts that look like coyotes in hopes of scaring away the birds.
Alpena has another tool: The shotgun.
Last week, 12 hunters shot and killed 60 geese at two spots on the first day of two-day hunt that Gilmet hopes will thin the herd to tolerable levels.
Bridge Magazine and The Center for Michigan will hit the city Thursday at the end of the cull as part of its Truth Tour, a year-long campaign that’s spreading fact-based reporting on Michigan’s top issues before the Nov. 6 election.
But not all issues affecting residents involve weighty policy decisions.
In Alpena, the problem is geese.
Like much of Michigan and the rest of the country, residents say there are simply too many in the city of 10,500 residents that is the largest community in the northeast corner of the Lower Peninsula.
Once thought extinct, geese were rediscovered in 1962. Since then, the birds have flourished across the country. In Michigan, there’s roughly 295,000 geese, well above the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ target of between 175,000 to 225,000 geese, said Barb Avers, a waterfowl and wetlands specialist for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
And many of those geese are found in urban and suburban areas especially in Metro Detroit, where manicured parks and golf courses – many with lakes and ponds – provide an inviting landscape.
“A goose couldn’t ask for anything more,” she said.
The goose population has increased despite Michigan having the most liberal hunting season allowed: Federal law limits hunting of migratory to 107 days. Michigan uses every one, Avers said.
Part of the reason for the proliferation of geese, researchers say, is the birds have figured out they don’t get shot in cities.
Unless they go to Alpena. And Avers is fine with that.
“Probably our best tool for reducing local populations is hunting,” she said. “But in many areas…that’s not possible.”
Few critics, many supporters
The Humane Society of the United States opposes the hunts, calling them “inhumane, effective and unnecessary” punishment for geese doing what geese do.
The group advocates non-lethal methods. Few in Alpena seem to agree.
The City Council voted 4-0 to approve the 2018 hunt. Folks with the local wildlife sanctuary, which protects a 500-acre waterfront area, are not upset.
They’re more worried about invasive plants choking off the existing wildlife.
“People realize (the geese) can be very messy,” said Roger Witherbee, a member of the sanctuary board who said he’s not heard anyone complain about the hunt.
“We still have a lot of geese around.”
This will mark the third year of the hunt. Hunters shot 32 geese the first year and 99 last year. Gilmet said he hopes the dozen or so hunters get between 75 and 110 this year.
Hunting isn’t Alpena’s only solution. It’s also joined a state program to collect and destroy goose eggs. Nearly 200 were scooped up in Alpena the last two years.
Michigan officials have lent a hand across the state and it relocated 8,900 geese , many young and flightless, this year. But that’s a short-term fix, Avers said.
Once the goslings can fly, they often go right back where they came from, she said. Other cities and property owners collected and destroyed another 11,000 eggs this spring.
Yet the population continues to climb. That’s why cities like Sault Ste. Marie and Hillsdale have also allowed hunts, Avers said.
“I know it’s a very difficult (decision) to consider,” Avers said. “But if they can I would absolutely recommend they look into it.”
A war on feces
Few cities approve goose hunts because cities are, by nature, full of people. Shotguns and subdivisions typically don’t mix.
“I’m sure our residents would not be pleased with hunting, let alone killing (the geese),” said Fred Bunn, director of parks and recreation for the city of East Grand Rapids.
Like Alpena, East Grand Rapids’ waterfront park has been overrun with geese.
“They do love to come into John Collins Park to eat,” Bunn said.
Along Reed Lake, the park is in the middle of a residential neighborhood that surrounds the lake.
Bunn said he can’t fathom a locked-and-loaded approach.
Instead, the wealthy city (median household income in East Grand Rapids is nearly $120,000, more than triple the $35,500 median in Alpena) takes a number of steps to control geese. It applies a solution to the grass and has collected eggs (roughly 50 this year alone).
And East Grand Rapids hires a company to run a border collie in the park, chasing away geese.
Bunn estimated he spends $7,000 a year to control the geese. And they’re still there.
That kind of spending wasn’t an option in Alpena. Instead, it’ll cost about $400 to operate the hunt that could yield 110 birds, Gilmet said.
He’s paying a boater to keep others out of water near the hunting area and he has another person chasing the birds with a dog in other parts of the city during the hunt.
The goal is to make them so “miserable” they leave the area entirely, Gilmet said.
In southern Michigan, city leaders in Hillsdale came to the same conclusion as Alpena. After years of scooping poop, the city opted for a controlled hunt in 2017 along the shores of Baw Beese Lake.
It cost just a couple of hundred dollars for background checks on the prospective hunters, said Jake Hammel, director of public services.
He doesn’t have enough workers and time, he said, to collect all of the bird droppings on the city park’s beaches and trails.
“Feces everywhere,” he said, describing the problem. “It’s almost insurmountable.”
Still, he’s not sure he’ll do the hunt this year, largely because of manpower issues. It’s not because of desire or need.
“There’s just not an easy solution.”