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Duluth to consider goose-management plan in battle to restore wild rice

Authorities say lethal controls are needed to reduce munching birds and re-establish healthy stands of the native grain in the St. Louis River Estuary.

Wild rice growing in a goose exclosure.
Wild rice grows in one of five exclosures erected in the St. Louis River's restored Kingsbury Bay on Sept. 12. The fencing keeps geese from swimming into the rice patch, and if the exclosures are the proper size and shape, geese avoid flying into them.
Steve Kuchera / File / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — Hungry geese have stood in the way of ongoing efforts to bring healthy stands of wild rice back to the St. Louis River.

And the Duluth City Council will be asked Monday night to support a goose-management plan that could turn the tables by reducing the number of birds feeding on the rice before it can take hold, according to Jim Filby Williams, director of Duluth’s parks, properties and libraries.

“The city strongly supports the interagency effort to restore wild rice to the estuary for both ecological and cultural purposes,” he said.

Toward that end, the plan set to go before the council would authorize the Minnesota and Wisconsin departments of natural resources to oversee the annual removal and euthanization of up to 300 geese from city property, beginning next year.

040721.N.DNT.WaabizheshikanaC2.jpg
A pair of Canada geese rest on the ice on Kingsbury Bay along the Waabizheshikana Trail in Duluth on April 1, 2021.
Steve Kuchera / File / Duluth News Tribune

Superior has been engaged in similar goose-management efforts for more than five years now, said Linda Cadotte, the city’s director of parks, recreation and forestry. She said the initiative to bring down goose numbers in Superior was initially motivated by local concerns about feces the birds were leaving behind in public spaces, but now the work is also in support of the wild rice restoration efforts.

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“The cultural importance of restoring wild rice cannot be overstated and it is in the context of that enormously important effort that we are comfortable approving this management plan,” said Filby Williams, nodding to the great significance of this native grain, especially to people of Indigenous heritage.

Dave Grandmaison, a Wisconsin DNR officer and coordinator of the cross-state wild rice restoration project under way in the St. Louis River Estuary, said geese remain “the main challenge” to the work being funded through the Environmental Protection Agency’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

Two geese swimming.
Two Canada geese swim on St. Louis Bay near Indian Point in Duluth on the foggy morning of Aug. 15.
Steve Kuchera / 2022 file / Duluth News Tribune

“We have had some great success with seeding and germination at some different locations throughout the estuary. But we see that the geese are essentially serving as lawnmowers and mowing down the rice at a pretty important stage of its growth cycle,” he explained.

Jeramy Pinkerton of the Minnesota DNR, explained that Canada geese typically molt in late June to early July, rendering them temporarily unable to fly. And it is during this particular time that damage to emerging rice stands is most intense.

Grandmaison said that during their molt, flightless geese can be herded into an enclosure, where they can then be euthanized using carbon dioxide with the carcasses to be donated to feed non-avian animals in captivity, such as at the Lake Superior Zoo. The exercise is sometimes called “a goose roundup,” and the practice has yielded better established beds of wild rice in places such as Allouez Bay.

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He said that once wild rice gets a stronger foothold in the estuary it should be better able to withstand geese.

“When rice is at very low density, there’s a higher risk from goose herbivory. It’s very susceptible to being essentially wiped out by geese,” Grandmaison said. “They are extremely efficient foragers. So, when we have this situation where we’re trying to re-establish wild rice and we don’t have high-density wild rice stands, goose herbivory is a pretty big issue.”

But as stands of wild rice grow thicker, Grandmaison said the need to suppress the goose population should ease.

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“What our hope is and the irony of this whole thing is that we’re trying to create habitat for fish and waterfowl, including geese, to better the habitat value of this important area, as well as increase the resource value from a cultural and community perspective,” he said.

Non-lethal efforts to protect young rice stands from geese have produced only limited success. T he most promising practice has been to fence off small sections of wild rice with “exclosures.” But Pinkerton said these exclosures must be small enough to make geese uneasy about flying into them to land. He said they also can be used in only a limited fashion, so as not to impede water access or keep other species out of valuable habitat.

Filby Williams said the city does not take the decision to condone the limited killing of geese lightly.

“As a former director of Animal Allies, I care deeply about animals, as do my co-workers. I think that our inter-agency partners have gone through a very rigorous, very expensive process of experimentation and re-evaluation in an effort to avoid the necessity for lethal removal. Not only has that work been unsuccessful, they have also conducted the scientific research locally to explain why it has failed and why non-lethal management alone would be very likely to continue to be unsuccessful,” he said.

Filby Williams remains optimistic the goose roundups may no longer be needed as wild rice becomes more prevalent in the estuary.

“I think we take solace from the plan and expectation of our agency partners that this is unlikely to be necessary on an ongoing long-term basis. The intent is to allow these seedlings to germinate and reach a level of maturity necessary to simultaneously support self-sustaining propagation and present an effective physical and visual barrier to geese in the future,” he said.

“I can’t say whether a year of lethal control or three years or some number may be necessary. But we share our agency partners’ hope that it will only be a temporary necessity,” Filby Williams said.

Grandmaison said he considers Duluth “a critical partner,” as geese currently often take refuge on city property.

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“Geese are wicked smart. They know where they’re going to be protected from any sort of disturbance. And they definitely know where the resources are on the water,” he said.

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Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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