Company keeps Twin Cities’ Canada geese population in check
COTTAGE GROVE, Minn. -- The Canada geese were treasures once — majestic, rare, nearly hunted into oblivion. Tom Keefe spent the late 1970s on a farm in North Dakota, coaxing them back from the brink. Every prime specimen he raised was a thrill, every gosling a triumph.
Three and a half decades later, he still admires the birds and he’s still in the geese business.
The difference: It’s now Keefe’s job to round them up and ship them off to be killed.
“It’s not a pleasure,” he said. “It’s like, do you have any idea how much work it was to get this many?”
His company, Cottage Grove-based Canada Goose Management Inc., spends its summers at parks, lakes, golf courses and other metro-area locales that have become havens for geese. This year has been on the slow side, but on a busy day, Keefe’s crew might trap more than 100 birds — herding them into a fenced-in area during their flightless molting weeks, then shipping them out in crates.
From there, it’s off to a poultry plant for slaughter and processing. The adult geese wind up at local food shelves. The goslings become wolf food for researchers.
When Keefe graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1976 with a degree in wildlife management, he never thought it would come to this.
The giant Canada goose was believed to be extinct until the early 1960s, and made a comeback only after concerted breeding and transplant programs. Keefe worked with a captive flock in Jamestown, N.D., with similar efforts underway elsewhere.
It worked, with an exclamation point. Keefe remembers the summer of 1982, when Lake of the Isles in Minneapolis was overrun with geese. He worked for the state Department of Natural Resources at the time. The agency rounded up more than 400 geese and relocated them to Oklahoma.
The next year was quiet, as he recalls. In the summer of 1984 — and every summer since — the Twin Cities have seen some kind of goose removal.
“At the time, we thought ‘this is great,’ ” Keefe said. Soon, however, “we realized we had too much of a good thing.”
The metro area is essentially the perfect summer home for the geese, according to Steve Cordts, a DNR waterfowl specialist. There are plenty of shallow bodies of water, an abundant supply of grass, safe spots to nest and few natural predators.
Once Canada geese are successful in an area, they stick with it, Cordts said. And they’re good at homing their way back to wherever they learned to fly: When Keefe was raising and relocating them, he and his colleagues used to joke that the geese would “beat the truck back” to the starting point.
The population in Greater Minnesota tallies well above the DNR’s goal of 250,000, he said — in some years, it peaks above 400,000, despite the hundreds of thousands of birds shot by hunters annually.
The metro-area numbers come in much lower, about 17,000. That’s still enough to register as a nuisance — and sometimes a threat to water quality — in places such as golf courses or popular beaches.
The geese still are an important natural resource, Cordts said, but when they’re trampling about and leaving droppings en masse, “they get a bad rap.”
At first, the DNR shipped them to other states. By 1996, they were rounding up thousands of adult geese a year and no one would take them, so they started processing the birds for food shelves. A decade later, no one would take the goslings, either, so they became food for animal researchers.
Eventually, the DNR stepped away from the goose-management business. Keefe’s company, started by a University of Minnesota wildlife professor and licensed by the agency, stepped into the void. Keefe took over in 2008. He and the DNR believe the company is the only one of its kind in the state.
Geese treated humanely, he says
It’s a part-time business for Keefe, who also does licensing work for a private hunting and fishing company.
In a typical summer, his crew will hit 50 to 70 sites. Some cities, such as Burnsville, have written geese-management plans that specify population thresholds for removal.
“It all boils down to the level of acceptance that you have,” Keefe said.
The work isn’t always popular. When Lakeville’s city council agreed to work with Keefe this year to thin the population around Lake Marion, some residents decried the removal as brutal — particularly the killing of goslings.
“Any way you go about it, it’s going to be repugnant,” said Ken LaBoone, one resident, at a May 5 council meeting.
Brett Altergott, Lakeville’s parks director, said the city tried other methods, such as chemical repellents, with little effect.
“It’s been an ongoing battle for us,” he said.
Homeowners around the lake want the population under control, and the city is worried about bacteria in the water. It’s paying Keefe $16 for each adult removed and $8 per gosling, up to $2,000. The removal process generally takes two to three years to make a difference.
The geese are treated humanely after they’re captured, Altergott said.
“We’re not out there clubbing them or doing anything like that,” he said.
‘I love geese’
Keefe hears the complaints, too. About once a year, his crew has to call the police because someone’s giving them a hard time on the job. After the Lakeville contract made news, he got a phone call from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to make sure his company didn’t feed goslings to wolves live (it does not).
He sympathizes with the critics, he said. He still has fond memories of working on the restoration program and having goslings follow him around like a parent.
“People ask, ‘How can you be involved with this?’ ” he said. “We want to maintain the population at a level that’s socially acceptable to balance the needs of the public.”
And he said he’s more troubled by people who urge him to “get rid of those dirty birds” than by people who don’t like the removal at all.
“I love geese. I think they’re the coolest thing ever,” he said. But he will concede: “Sometimes, they make a mess.”